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Access to Information Bill battle may be taken to court

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Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi has said it may consider moving the courts as a last resort to expedite enactment into law of the Access to Information Bill (ATI).

The ATI was part of a panel discussion during the 2018 Malawi Law Society (MLS) Annual Conference underway in Mangochi. During the deliberations, the participants held discussions looking at some case studies, where courts were used to force authorities to move fast on similar legislations.

Misa Malawi Chairperson Teresa Ndanga said while Misa will still prioritise dialogue around discussions with the government on the ATI, the chapter may now start looking into the possibility of moving the courts to force government to set a date for implementation.

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Ndanga said it is baffling that government, through the Ministry of Information, is taking baby steps on the issue even though a year has now passed since President Peter Mutharika assented to the Bill.

“Right now, all we are waiting for is the minister [of Information] to decide the commencement date and, honestly, it feels like the government is holding this nation to ransom. The explanations that have been given, for example, waiting for the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) to come up with a basic framework, are not justifiable.

“We feel that these are issues that can be dealt with as we go along. Maybe, taking this matter to court, will be an option,” she said.

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In a separate interview, outgoing President of the MLS, Khumbo Soko, said that access to information is a very critical component in any functional democracy, which benefits both those who govern and also the governed.

“We hope that government will see the ATI as a tool that will help them to be more accountable and transparent. It is worrisome that it is taking the minister [of Information] too long to put it into operation,” he said.

Soko further said it is incumbent on the minister to explain to the nation the reasons behind the delay.

“The ATI is a very critical components of some if the rights in the Constitution and it is worrisome that it is taking the minister forever to operationalise it,” he said.

In December 2016, Parliament passed the ATI, a move that was seen as a huge milstone in the 12-year long process, in which various stakeholders, led by Misa Malawi, campaigned for legislation on access to information.

After a protracted battle that saw Cabinet making some changes to the Bill, in passing the Bill, Members of Parliament adopted recommendations made by the parliamentary committees on Media and Communications and Legal Affairs.

In their report following the review process, the parliamentary committees – among other things, proposed the re-introduction of an independent oversight body to monitor and oversee implementation of the ATI legislation. They also restored provisions to protect whistle blowers and safeguard the legislation against laws that limit or restrict access, among others.

The provisions were part of the original ATI as drafted by experts and submitted to the government in December 2014 following thorough nation-wide consultations but were removed by the government prior to the gazetting of the bill in February 2016.

Three months later, In February 2017, President Peter Mutharika, made history, when he assented to the ATI.

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