The dicey Access to Information (ATI) Bill yesterday caused an uproar in the National Assembly in Lilongwe when the government side pulled the plug on an opposition keen to have the Bill passed.
Even in its drafting, the ATI Bill has been a 12-year contentious issue in Malawi which has seen the regimes of former president Bingu wa Mutharika, immediate-past president Joyce Banda and incumbent President Peter Mutharika sometimes appearing to drag their feet about passing it.
When the ATI Bill was about to make it to Parliament last year, it was discovered that there were “butchering” modifications to it in January this year. The President explained that there were technical irregularities he had noted in the draft legislation.
However, many stakeholders, including the media and civil society organisations (CSOs), complained that the modified version of the “butchered” Bill restricted journalists and other people from easily accessing public information.
In recent months the Media and Legal Affairs committees of Parliament have been ‘cleaning up’ the Bill by removing draconian clauses which impinged on human rights as ordinary people may want to access public information.
But yesterday it was clear that the government side was not comfortable with the amendments, particularly as some opposition members of Parliament (MPs) were sending pieces of paper, notifying the Legal Affairs and Media committees of other amendments to the Bill.
Of particular concern on the government side was the Bill’s proposal that the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), an independent human rights body under the Constitution funded by taxpayers, should act as a referee over human and other breaches authorities may make after the Bill is passed.
Many MPs were surprised that the Bill had been tabled, perhaps a day earlier than expected. Even better progress seemed on the cards when business swiftly shifted the committee stage, indicating a closer step by the House to finally vote on the Bill.
But in presenting the Bill, Minister of Information and Communications Technology Malison Ndau, among other things, baffled many opposition legislators when he said the MHRC had refused to take up the role of overseeing affairs contained in the Bill because the commission was busy enough as it is.
Here, chairpersons of the two committees—Sam Kawale (Media) and Maxwell Thyolera (Legal Affairs—and several other MPs said the minister was being economical with the truth because MHRC told the opposition leaders about its readiness to take up the new role once the Bill is passed.
They said the MHRC’s only plea was that the same Parliament, which has powers to give the assignment, should consider allocating resources to the commission for recruiting new members of staff and for carrying out the oversight duties.
From that point, the government side seemed unwilling to proceed with the debate, small wonder that there was a proposal that the committee stage debate be curtailed.
Second Deputy Speaker Clement Chiwaya initially had problems to differentiate winners of a voice vote on the matter; hence, allowing a division or an open vote. The question the MPs voted on was whether the committee stage debate be suspended.
The opposition ‘No’ side won with 56 votes while the government side, with a ‘Yes’ vote lost, with 52 votes. But, shockingly, there were 83 absentee MPs during voting time.
Tension, marked by many point of order interjections, developed into an uproar when the opposition side seemed frustrated with the government’s reluctance to make further progress on the Bill debate.
Ultimately, leader of the House George Chaponda proposed that the committee stage debate be postponed to another day.
But a seemingly uncomfortable opposition side said the committee stage debate be concluded this afternoon.
The opposition proposal might have emanated from the fear that the fourth meeting of the 46th session of Parliament has only a few days to conclude and, once again, the ATI Bill may not be passed.
Chaponda did not state whether, indeed, the ATI Bill debate would be resumed today. n