Parliament yesterday referred the Access to Information (ATI) Bill to Media and Communications and Legal Affairs committees for further scrutiny.
Minister of Information, communications technology and civic education Patricia Kaliati had tabled the much-awaited Bill but lawmakers rejected to debate it further most of the because opposition members of Parliament (MPs) expressed concerns that government had tabled an adulterated version of the Bill.
In February this year, the Peter Mutharika Cabinet approved the Bill after removing provisions that President Peter Mutharika declared “inconsistent”, but which are important to supporters of the proposed law.
Government removed Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) as the oversight body on the right to information, our review of the now gazetted Bill shows. The Bill was gazetted on February 19 2016.
In removing MHRC as the body that raises awareness of the right to review decisions of information holders with regard to requests for information, government complicates the people’s ability to challenge authorities for information.
The commission initially had powers to obtain information for purposes of reviewing denials of access to information, but the new Bill states that Malawians will have to go to court for review of decisions of information holders, but only after an unsuccessful internal review.
The Cabinet has also scrapped a provision that information holders should disclose information in the public interest regardless of the information being exempted from public disclosure.
However, spokespersons from opposition parties who spoke on the Bill before Leader of the House, George Chaponda proposed to refer the Bill back to the appropriate committees, said they were against the diluted bill.
Malawi Congress Party (MCP) shadow minister of information Ezekiel Chingoma said passing such a Bill will be an embarrassment to the nation as it was against Section 45 sub Section (2)(f) of the Constitution.
“I am not in agreement with Section 21 of the proposed ATI Bill which by implication gives powers to the public information holder to refuse a request to give information or remain mute and if it is passed into law, it has serious implications to the media, as well as the public,” he said.
On her part, People’s Party spokesperson on information, Agness Nyalonje who is also Mzimba North MP, said the Bill should not be perceived as a war between politicians and journalists. She supported the motion that the Bill be send back relevant committees for screening. n