Members of Parliament (MPs) want Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) freed from political interference to enable it professionally discharge its functions and create a level-playing field.
But Ministry of Information, Communications Technology and Civic Education has claimed that the amended draft Communications Act will remove arbitrary control over the regulator, Macra, as all directions would be gazetted before implementation.
Political control over Macra and taxpayer funded Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) has formed the basis for the repeal of the Communications Act which was tabled before Parliament in March this year, but the Media and Communications Committee of Parliament has expressed concern that not much has changed.
Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi Chapter has also lobbied Parliament to reject the Communications Bill because government had replaced the President as the sole appointing authority of the board of Macra which would not ensure its independence.
The committee engaged officials from the ministry and Macra on Friday as part of its consultations on the Bill which the House referred to them for further scrutiny.
Karonga Central Member of Parliament (MP) Frank Mwenifumbo said there was no assurance from the draft Bill that Macra would be free from political interference.
However, the ministry’s Principal Secretary Justin Saidi insisted that no legislation or policy could be enacted without a relevant policy holder and that in the case of communications regulations, it could only be Minister of Information.
He said: “The minister would be discharging his or her duty as a member of the Executive branch of government, not as a politician. To ensure this is adhered to, in the draft Bill, all directions would have to be gazetted.”
Saidi said the bill was also making it clear that no member of the Macra would be a politician.
But the committee wondered how political interference could be removed considering that the draft Bill states that the President would be the one appointing board members, the board which would in turn hire or fire the director general (DG).
The concerns come against a background of recent developments where, within a year, government unceremoniously removed Macra DG Andrew Kumbatira and redeployed him back to Malaw Posts Corporations (MPC). Then Postmaster General Godfrey Itaye was moved to Macra where he is serving as director general to date.
Mwenifumbo said it was painful to see professionals with a good track record in communications being tossed about at the discretion of politicians.
The draft bill states that once appointed by the board, the Macra DG would be removed by reason of incompetence, insanity or bankruptcy.
Mwenifumbo said: “The director general should have job security and the law should not put it casually as that. There should be a more sensible way of putting it because as we all know, no DG has been insane at Macra yet they have been removed.”
Committee chairperson Sam Kawale said it was the proposal of some stakeholders consulted that once the board has appointed a DG, the Public Appointments Committee of Parliament should be involved in the process, at the hiring and removal stage.
However, Macra deputy director of legal services Thoko Chimbe assured the committee that the DG would have strict independence with a three-year tenure of office and an additional two terms.
In 2015, Macra remitted K4.5 billion to Treasury which it collected from penalties, licensing of telecommunications and broadcasters.