LONDON - Charities in Malawi have accused the government of trying to rush through a "draconian" law ahead of next year's elections aimed at muzzling criticism and stifling advocacy groups.
They say the proposed legislation will give the government sweeping powers to interfere with the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the southern African country, which is regularly rocked by allegations of high-level corruption.
"It's draconian," Oxfam country director John Makina told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We believe this is a way to silence criticism of the government. We're concerned that advocacy organizations will not be able to operate."
The bill, expected to be discussed in parliament shortly, creates a new government-appointed body to regulate NGOs, including international and local charities, rights organizations, grassroots groups and faith-based organizations.
Directors or trustees of NGOs which fail to comply face imprisonment of seven years. Fines will rise to 15 million kwacha ($20,800) from 50,000 kwacha under current law.
But critics said there was no clarity on what constituted non-compliance, leaving the law open to abuse and manipulation.
They feared the law could be used to shut down organizations that spoke out on issues such as corruption.
An official from an international donor said the law risked "having a chilling effect on civil society and undermining Malawi's democratic credentials".
"I would be terrified to be an NGO director under this law," added the official who asked not to be named.
The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but local media quoted the justice minister, Samuel Tembenu, as saying the reforms would make NGOs accountable to Malawians.
Oxfam's Makina said he believed the changes were in response to recent cases where NGOs had exposed corruption.
He warned that the threat of harsh penalties could make it difficult for NGOs to find people willing to be directors.
More than 50 groups and rights defenders presented a petition to parliament on Friday saying the Non-Governmental Organizations (Amendment) Act would create a "monster regulator" having "absolute powers without accountability checks".
Ulemu Chiluzi, country director of development charity Self Help Africa, said NGOs had not been consulted and were "very shocked" when the proposals were published this month.
"It's quite clear that NGO space is going to be stifled. There's need for more consultation," he added.
Corruption allegations have already surfaced as an issue in the build-up to the presidential elections, when the country is also due to elect a new parliament and ward councilors.