Media bodies have dared President Peter Mutharika to make public the inconsistencies his Cabinet identified in the Access to Information (ATI) Bill for people to get a better understanding of the problems.
Three influential media bodies—Media Owners and Managers in Malawi, Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi Chapter and the Media Council of Malawi (MCM)—have made the call in response to government’s statement last week which attributed the further delayed tabling of the Bill to “inconsistencies” that need to be addressed first.
Last week’s attribution to “inconsistencies” was the third since Mutharika and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ascended to power in May 2014.
In the petition to the President released on Tuesday and jointly signed by Misa-Malawi chairperson Thom Khanje, MCM chairperson Professor Wiseman Chirwa and six media owners and managers namely Mbumba Banda of Nation Publications Limited (NPL), Leornard Chikadya of Times Group, Gospel Kazako of Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS), Arlene Osman of Capital Radio, Esmie Malisita of Joy Radio and Dalitso Nkunika of Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ), the media wants Mutharika “to take due diligence in ensuring and taking full responsibility” of expediting the process.
After publicising the “inconsistencies”, the media gurus want the Bill tabled before Parliament rises next month. Further, they want the President to urgently convene a meeting between the Legal Affairs Committee of Cabinet and the task force that drafted the ATI Bill to address the so-called “inconsistencies”.
Reads the petition in part: “Use Your Excellency’s Executive powers to reject the adulterated version of the Bill and uphold the original version, which reflects the outcome of the inclusive international and domestic consultations that recommended a governance structure that establishes an Independent Information Commission and the ‘use of public resources’ as justification for and scope limitation on private and CSO [civil society organisations] bodies’ obligations to grant access to information.”
Leader of the House Francis Kusaila, who jointly addressed a news conference in Lilongwe with Minister of Information, Tourism and Civic Education Jappie Mhango last week where they said ATI Bill will not be tabled in the current session, yesterday refused to comment saying: “Talk to government spokesperson”.
Mhango, the official government spokesperson, was not available for comment as we went to press because he kept his phone off. But earlier he had told ZBS that he “cannot comment on an issue [petition] he hasn’t seen”.
Meanwhile, leader of opposition in Parliament Lazarus Chakwera has agreed with the media’s position, noting: “We have been promised too many times.”
He said: “This [the petition] illustrates the very fact I had pointed out that we should do everything in good faith not the kind of flip floppy that has characterised all this. We want to see how we can best fight for the tabling of the Bill.”
Dowa North-East member of Parliament (MP) Sam Kawale (Malawi Congress Party-MCP), who chairs the Media Committee of Parliament, on Tuesday said Cabinet’s conduct was disturbing as it is not the first time Malawians have not been told the truth about the ATI Bill.
He said: “In addition, they [the Executive] have not even communicated to us the inconsistencies they have encountered. This is indeed disappointing and not good for democracy.”
The ATI Bill, whose development began a decade ago, has always received a cold reception from successive governments regarding its tabling. However, the return of DPP last year, somehow, ushered in a ray of hope.
Just a day after launching its manifesto in Blantyre, Vice-President Saulos Chilima, then DPP presidential running mate, told journalists at a briefing at Protea Ryalls Hotel: “If you have nothing to hide, there is no point to fear passing the ATI Bill into law.
“We will run a transparent government and because we will have nothing to hide, our government will expedite the passing of ATI as outlined in our manifesto.”
In its manifesto, DPP brought up the ATI Bill in two separate sections.
In the preamble, which spelt out the core beliefs of the party, the party said: “The DPP government will cooperate and collaborate with the civil society, non-governmental organisations and the media in the development of Malawi’ and concluded that ‘in this regard, we will pass and implement the ATI Bill.”
Further, in the section of media and civil society, the party wrote: “We recognise that access to information is a major challenge for the fourth arm of the State to play their important roles… in this regard, the DPP government will pass and implement the ATI Bill.”
In his inaugural address, the President said: “Our administration will ensure that there is access to public information and in this regard we shall cooperate with all relevant stakeholders including the media in passing and implementation of the Access to Information Bill into law”.
During his State of the Nation Address and subsequent media briefings, Mutharika was never short of reminding Malawians of his ATI Bill promise.
The President’s consistent reminders, augured by consistent words of commitment by the then Minister of Information Kondwani Nankhumwa brought a ray of hope to Malawians regarding the passing of ATI—a bill that has stayed close to a decade on shelves gathering dust.
However, that hope began to die down when, during the first parliamentary sitting after the May 20 2014 Tripartite Elections the Bill missed on the items on the agenda.
Nankhumwa, to save government’s face, came running quickly and promised that the Bill would be presented during the September 2014 sitting of Parliament. But when September came, Nankhumwa went public again saying the Bill had been deferred, saying it had been sent to the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs for further development.
Explaining the deferment, Nankhumwa said since June 2014, his ministry had been engaging various stakeholders to polish up the Bill before it is finally presented to Parliament.
The expectation, amid waning patience, was that the Bill would be in Parliament during the Mid-year Budget Review meeting in February this year. But, again, it missed on the agenda.
As of April this year, Nankhumwa said his ministry was still waiting from the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.
In August this year, our sister newspaper, Weekend Nation reported that government, with pressure from development partners, was ready to table the Bill in the current session.
However, just two days before Mutharika opened the current sitting; government held a press conference in Lilongwe disclosing the Bill won’t be tabled. n