A local chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Malawi has praised some legislators for proposing progressive amendments to the Access to Information (ATI) Bill.
The body, MISA Malawi, said on Tuesday in a statement that if approved by the National Assembly, the new legislation will ensure that Malawians have an access to information.
Among other things, the committee has proposed the re-introduction of an independent oversight body to monitor and oversee implementation of the Access to Information (ATI) legislation.
“They have also restored provisions to protect whistle blowers as well as make the subsequent ATI law superior to the Official Secrets Act, among others,” reads a statement signed by MISA Malawi chairperson Thom Khanje.
The proposed amendments by the Parliamentary committees follow several substantial changes cabinet made to the draft ATI Bill in February this year which significantly watered-down the bill.
MISA Malawi has been pressing the government to review its position on the draft law which undermined the right to information as provided for in Section 37 of the Malawi Constitution.
Authorities in Malawi initially rebuffed MISA’s pleas by introducing the adulterated bill in Parliament in August this year.
The bill has now taken a new shape after the legislators referred it to the Media and Communications and Legal Affairs Committees of the House for further review and consultations.
Praising the legislators that reviewed the bill, Misa Malawi observed: “We applaud the two committees for taking into consideration the views of stakeholders and interests of the nation in the proposed improvements to the bill.”
The statement added: “We therefore call on both ruling party and opposition legislators in the National Assembly to support the recommendations from the two committees when the bill is re-introduced in the plenary session of the house to ensure that the right to information does not only exist on paper but benefits Malawians.”
Despite of the benefits expounded by its proponents, ruling party MPs in Malawi have been fighting hard to shoot down the bill while the opposition wants the legislation enacted.
Outside Parliament, Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika has for sometime been uncomfortable with the access to information legislation.
Earlier this year, he said the new law should not cover existing government information, arguing that the bill should only apply prospectively.
Commenting on the bill on Jan. 21, Mutharika threatened to torpedo a retroactive ATI bill.
“If it goes to Parliament and gets passed, I will not assent to it if these things are still there. I want to protect all people and institutions,” Mutharika said.
He also expressed his reservations on the provision which stated that: “Any law enacted after the commencement of this Act which restricts the rights and obligations provided for in this Act, shall have no effect.”
Mutharika’s failure to back the bill was a huge surprise considering that during his presidential campaign he repeatedly promised that his administration would enact ATI bill. He started to change the goal posts on the issue after his ascendance into power.
Many human rights groups in Malawi are urging passage of the ATI bill.
The support that the bill has angered Mutharika who at one point said defiantly: “I have even noted that our development partners are using it as another conditionality of donor aid although it was not the reason why they stopped aid. Other countries without this Bill are receiving budgetary support.
“Let me repeat that we are not going to pass the Bill to appease anyone. We will make this Bill into Law because I believe it is good for the country; and because it is good for access to information to be legally protected and regulated.”
The ATI legislation, is among others expected to promote transparency and accountability.