Battle lines were drawn on the gazetted Access to Information (ATI) Bill on Saturday night at the World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) celebrations in the resort town of Mangochi.
Minister of Information, Communications Technology and Civic Education Patricia Kaliati came with a round of rebuttals to remarks that government should withdraw the controversial Bill for further consultations.
The mood was electric at Sunbird Nkopola Lodge as journalists, mostly dressed in dinner suits and dresses, punctuated the ambience with glitz and glamour which did not stop media stakeholders from shoveling the message at government’s doorstep.
At the gala, where journalists from various media houses were recognised for their exceptional works, Media Institute for Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi Chapter chairperson Thom Khanje appealed to government to halt the process of enacting the Bill into law, saying it does not wholly represent views of stakeholders.
He said: “We once again appeal to the government to withdraw the Bill as gazetted from Parliament and replace it with the original draft as presented to the government by the stakeholders and thoroughly scrutinised and passed by officials from your ministry, lawyers from the Ministry of Justice, a committee of principal secretaries as well as the Cabinet committee on legal affairs.”
But this did not go down well with Kaliati, who diverted from her prepared speech to push the blame back to media advocates saying they were contradicting themselves on the matter.
She said: “We have been talking about this ATI for many years now. At least, currently, there is progress. Now the media want us to take the Bill out of Parliament and start consultations all over again. Do not complain if the Act delays in passing up to 2024…”
University of Malawi Chancellor College professor of law Garton Kamchedzera earlier faulted government when it was revealed that the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs made unilateral changes to the Bill without consulting other stakeholders when he said it was a ‘departure’ from the norm.
Khanje, who was first to speak on the night, put it to government that the process during which the Bill had passed through was faulty as it was hijacked by government, therefore, making the bill a stranger to other stakeholders which includes Misa Malawi, Media Council of Malawi and Council for Non-Governmental Organisations (Congoma).
But in her prepared speech Kaliati hinted at government’s resolve to see the Bill passed in the present state, casting doubts of any moves to address the concerns raised so far.
Media Owners Association chairperson Mbumba Banda who delivered a keynote address, also questioned the delays by authorities to enact an ATI legislation that could create an environment for easy access of information in the country.
“For some reason, this law [ATI] makes politicians very uncomfortable. This is something I have always failed to understand, because if our leaders really understood and appreciated that they hold their positions on behalf and on the sustained trust of all Malawians, there should be no qualms with making necessary information available to the same masses they purport to serve,” said Banda who is also Nation Publications Limited (NPL) chief executive officer.
In an apparent direct response, Kaliati accused the media of what she called failure to value positive news.
She said: “As government, we are not afraid of anything in enacting the ATI Bill into law. However we also fail to understand why government agenda is not given prominence in the country’s media.”