At 20:15hrs on Wednesday, Parliament passed the Access to Information (ATI) Bill, bringing the curtain down on over a decade of political manoeuvring by successive governments to see it through.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa Malawi) Chairperson Thom Khanje described the development as a watershed moment which generations from now would remember.
“This is great day for Malawi after 12 years of waiting. We thank the House for passing it at long last. Every Malawian should be excited that the bill has passed now,” said Khanje.
Misa Malawi has been the lead advocate for the law, amid resistance from the government for the past 12 years, on the understanding that it would help in holding the government accountable because it would empower citizens the power to seek information.
“Generations from now will remember this day. The government has been operating in secret and now it is time for Malawians to demand expenditure of every penny,” added khanje.
The passage of the law in Parliament was not without controversies after the government made several objections to some provisions, but the opposition stood its ground.
Several Cabinet ministers took turns attempting to block the adoption of some provisions such as the protection of whistleblowers, but the opposition took advantage of its numerical strength during the sitting to adopt the provisions.
It was clear from the start of the day’s proceedings that the government side would not allow the bill to go through as Leader of the House George Chaponda passionately argued that the ATI Bill should be set aside to pave way discussions on the National Planning Commission Bill.
This was in spite of the fact that the bill had been left at the committee stage on Tuesday.
The matter of interpreting Parliamentary Standing Orders became the centre of disagreement between the opposition and the government during the first part which was later suspended by Second Deputy Speaker Clement Chiwaya.
While Chaponda claimed that the Minister of Information and Communication Technology Malison Ndau, who was responsible for the ATI Bill, wanted to conduct some consultation, the opposition argued it was irregular.
People’s Party Member of Parliament for Nkhata Bay Central Raphael Mhone argued that the normal way of doing things was that a bill that was already at the committee stage should continue being discussed.
“That would be defeating our own laws because it is irregular and it has never happened in the history of parliamentary proceedings. Why is the government rushing to bring another bill when one bill, which is equally important, has not been concluded?” wondered Mhone.
Chairperson of the parliamentary media and communications committee Sam Kawale said it was improper for the government to seek the postponement of debate on the bill because Ndau wanted to conduct some consultations.
“We did a lot of consultations and we expect that bill to go through without any problem. There is no need for someone to say they have to do further consultations,” said Kawale.
After the suspension, Speaker of Parliament Richard Msowoya announced that the Business Committee had resolved that the House should continue discussing the ATI Bill instead of the National Planning Commission Bill.
However, the government side still fought hard to block some provisions such as the protection of whistleblowers, but the efforts did not work as the opposition emerged victorious twice during voting.
Even Ndau’s proposal that discussion on the bill should be pended until Friday was blocked by the opposition which felt that the government was simply buying time.
When every government side member appeared to have given up on the fight to block some provisions, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu remained resolute in proposing minor amendments which the opposition agreed with.
Finally, Ndau was compelled to move that the third reading, which meant the bill had passed, should be made last night.
The passing of the bill means it only awaits the signature of President Peter Mutharika before it can become an act of Parliament.
For over ten years, different governments have not shown any willingness to ensure the Access to Information Bill goes in Parliament.
When the Bill was sent to Parliament earlier this year, the opposition parties rejected it, amid an uproar from freedom of information activists who noted that the government had adulterated the bill by removing several provisions, such as the protection of whistleblowers and the establishment of an independent oversight body.
It was subsequently referred to the legal affairs and media and communications committees, which reinstated most of the original provisions.
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