At exactly 20:15, Parliament Wednesday passed the Access to Information (ATI) Bill after the government side had previously made several objections to some provisions which were later overturned by the opposition side.
“I wish to report that the Access to Information Bill has passed through the Committee Stage with amendments… Third reading has to take place now,” Minister of Information, Malison Ndau, said.
Consequently, Speaker of Parliament, Richard Msowoya, declared:
“Following the Bill going through the Committee Stage with amendments, it means that this House has passed Bill Number 1 of 2016. Access to Information Bill has passed.”
The Speaker’s announcement sent the opposition side into wild celebrations as they banged tables, excited at their hard-fought victory. Meanwhile, members on the government side remained nonchalant.
The opposition really sweated to pass the bill for Malawians. Leader of the House, George Chaponda, moved a motion to suspend debate to Friday. But the motion was defeated by 66 votes to 65. Later, Ndau moved another motion on the basis that it was then late and the discussions had to be moved to Friday; the motion was again defeated by 65 votes to 60.
It was clear from the start of the day’s sitting that the government side would not allow the bill to go through as Leader of the House, George Chaponda, fought vehemently that the ATI Bill should be put aside so that the lawmakers should discuss the National Planning Commission Bill.
This was in spite of the fact that the bill had been left at committee stage the previous day.
Several cabinet ministers took turns to block the adoption of some provisions including those that tackle the protection of whistle-blowers but the opposition took advantage of its numerical strength during the sitting to push for the adoption of the provisions.
The issue of interpreting Parliamentary Standing Orders became the centre of disagreements between the opposition and government sides during the first part which was later suspended by Second Deputy Speaker, Clement Chiwaya.
While Chaponda claimed that the minister responsible for the ATI Bill wanted to do some consultation, the opposition argued that it was irregular.
People’s Party (PP) Member of Parliament (MP) for Nkhata Bay Central, Raphael Mhone, argued that the normal way of doing things was that the ATI Bill which had already been discussed up to committee stage should not be referred back.
“That would be defeating our own laws because it is irregular and has never happened in the history of Parliamentary proceedings. Why is government rushing to bring another bill when one bill which is equally important has not been concluded?” Mhone, a veteran lawyer, said.
Chairperson of the Media and Communications Committee, Sam Kawale, said it was not right for the government side to say Minister of Information Malison Ndau wanted to do some consultations, thus the bill should be postponed.
“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,” Kawale said.
After the suspension, Msowoya, announced that the Business Committee had resolved that the House should continue discussing the ATI Bill instead of the National Planning Commission Bill.
Even when every government side member appeared to have given up on the fight, Minister of Justice, Samuel Tembenu, remained resolute on proposing simple amendments which the opposition was also in agreement with.
The passing of the bill means it only awaits the signature of President Peter Mutharika before it can become an act of Parliament. Mutharika already declared that he would not assent to the bill if government’s proposed amendments are rejected. It remains to be seen whether Mutharika, a constitutional law expert, will go against the will of the people and deny them their constitutional right to access information necessary for the exercise of their rights.
Meanwhile, Ndau has described the passing of the bill as a great step since the bill is important for all 17 million Malawians.
And Kawale said he was happy that the bill has finally passed.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa Malawi) Chapter, has for the past 12 years championed the cause of the Bill.
Misa Malawi Chairperson, Thom Khanje, described the passing of the bill as a landmark for Malawi’s democracy.
“We thank the House for passing the bill, long at last. Generations to come will remember this day. Government has been operating in secret and now it is time for Malawians to demand expenditure of every penny,” Khanje said.
Editor’s Note: The question is: will the State President give his assent to this long overdue bill?