MPs proposes Malawi Human Rights Commission as oversight body on Access to Information law

Media and Communications and Legal Affairs committee has presented a report of their scrutiny   Access to Information (ATI) Bill to parliament and recommended that tax-funded Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) should be entructed with the responsibility of enforcing the law.

Thyolera: Presented the report
Thyolera: Presented the report. Photo by Mphatso Nkhoma, Nyasa Times

When government tabled the long awaited ATI in July, opposition lawmakers rejected to debate it because they noted 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 MHRC as the oversight body on the right to information and butchered a thoroughly consulted Bill and gazetted it on February 19 2016 as a weakened piece of legislation aimed at undermining rather than promoting right to information as provided by the Constitution.

But when he presented the report on behalf of the committees, MP Maxwell Thyolera told the House that the committees consulted widely key stakeholders and has come up with several recommendations.

According to Thyolera the first recommendations is that to access the information law  needs to have independent oversight institution but due to finance constraints, they have proposed that the laws be under the MHRC or Ombudsman and Office of the Directors of Public Declaration as bodies that can play an oversight function of the law.

“The committees recommended Malawi Human Rights Commission to provide the oversight functions for the new law,” Thyolera told the House.

“The committees came up to this conclusion after satisfying themselves that the mandate that the constitution gives to the commission will not compete with the oversight function and would that not necessitate the constitutional amendment,” he added.

He however pointed out the need for parliament to allocate additional funds to MHRC  to enable the commission develop appropriate capacity to carry out its added responsibility.

The committee has also proposed some amendments to the bill that include the protection of a whistle blower.

He said: “Access to information is a right that is protected under Section 37 of our Constitution.  It has been said that a good and robust access to information law can help in improving accountability, transparency, the fight against corruption and participatory democracy.”

Thyolera also said the committees recommend the introduction of new clause that will criminalise and punish those who give false information for character assassination.

Zomba Chisi DPP parliamentarian, Mark Botoman who is also a member of media committee seconded the motion to have the report adopted.

The report has since been adopted and debate on the report shall continue on Wednesday next week to give time to members of the house to thoroughly go through thee report

Meanwhile, the Civil Society Network for Accountability (Csnat) has appealed for passing of ATI to help them track how funds in local authorities are utilised.

The group made its call when they had an advocacy meeting with MPs, especially those from the Media Committe.

Speaker of Parliament, Richad Msowoya, said lack of access to information “undermines accountability and public confidence” in the institutions.

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