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Cabinet rejects Information Bill

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Cabinet ministers on Tuesday rejected the draft Access to Information Bill that was supposed to be tabled in Parliament saying it is filled with a lot of irregularities.

The change of heart by the Cabinet which was chaired by President Peter Mutharika, comes as a huge irony as Mutharika promised, in his state of the nation address, that his administration would table the Bill in the ongoing Parliament meeting. Mutharika also made enactment of the bill a top priority campaign tool during the 2014 tripartite elections.

An inside source who attended the meeting that commenced at 6:30pm at Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe said Mutharika dismissed it off-handedly saying the bill had “many inconsistencies.”

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Minister of Information, Tourism and Civic Education Jappie Mhango told The Daily Times in an interview yesterday that indeed the Cabinet rejected the draft bill because it had a lot of errors.

He also confirmed that the Cabinet referred the bill for redrafting but was quick to point out that since he is not well versed in legal matters The Daily Times should talk to his cabinet colleague minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu.

Tembenu was not available for comment as his phone went unanswered.

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Mhango said as Cabinet they could not give the people a bad law.

Mutharika is reported to have told the meeting that he was able to identify 10 such “discrepancies” having read the draft bill briefly and was sure to find double as much if he went through the whole of it.

“We shouldn’t even waste time on this. We have many important businesses to discuss,” said Mutharika.

Despite recommendations from the Cabinet Committee on Legal Affairs for the Bill to be forwarded for consideration by Parliament, the full Cabinet has rejected it and has since referred it back to the Ministry of Information for redrafting.

The source said no time-frame has been given to the Ministry of Information in terms of when they have to complete re-drafting the Bill.

During the meeting, only Atupele Muluzi supported the bill, saying he was comfortable with it having gone through it and made some changes with colleagues in the Cabinet Committee on Legal Affairs.

The source told The Daily Times that Mhango, who disowned the bill during a cabinet committee meeting, was silent throughout the proceedings and Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining Bright Msaka – who was one of the people against the bill, even observed that Mhango seemed uncomfortable with the bill.

Other ministers who vehemently spoke against the bill, the source said, were Minister of Finance and Economic Development Goodall Gondwe, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation George Chaponda, Minister of Labour, Youth and Manpower Development Henry Mussa and Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati.

According to the source Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Kondwani Nankhumwa who championed the bill when he was Information Minister remained quiet throughout the meeting.

The Cabinet cited four reasons that justified their rejection of the draft bill. First among the reasons is that the bill should not be made superior to other laws that restrict access to information such as the Official Secrets Act. The second reason the Cabinet advanced is that the Bill should not provide immunity to government officers who act as whistle-blowers while the third reason is that it should not be applied retrospectively saying information accessible using the legislation should only be that from the date the Bill becomes effective.

The Cabinet also thinks the Ministry of Information should be the implementation agency of the ATI, not the Malawi Human Rights Commission as recommended by the Cabinet Committee on Legal Affairs.

Analysts have observed that this condition removes the Independent Information Commission as the implementation agency as recommended by relevant stakeholders.

Before the draft bill was taken to Cabinet, the Cabinet Committee on Legal Affairs also made several changes to the original bill from stakeholders.

The Cabinet agreed that the scope of coverage of the bill be extended beyond government agencies to also include civil society organisations.

Chairperson for Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa-Malawi) Thom Khanje said the reports from the Cabinet meeting are not only shocking but also disappointing.

“In a way, however, they prove fears many people have had all along that President Peter Mutharika was not really committed to the enactment of the ATI Bill despite his campaign and subsequent promises on the matter,” he said.

Khanje also said it also shows that the President is not honest and made false promises to Malawians just to get their votes.

“This is surprising considering the President’s seemingly high standing in society, looking at his educational and career background,” added Khanje.

The media freedom campaigner said it is now up to the people of Malawi to judge for themselves the President’s conduct on this matter.

“As Misa-Malawi, we shall never stop campaigning for the enactment of the ATI Bill because of our conviction about its importance to the strengthening of Malawi’s democracy and development,” he said.

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