BLANTYRE - Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Malawi are protesting a bill that, among other things, seeks to establish a new regulatory authority for such organizations. The NGOs have served Parliament with an injunction restraining it from debating the bill until it is reviewed, but legislators refuse to back down.
The NGO Act Amendment Bill imposes heavy fines and prison sentences on NGOs and their directors should they breach the law. But NGOs say the bill is an attempt to close down human rights groups, an allegation supporters of the bill deny.
Those who proposed the draft legislation say it largely seeks to amend the Nongovernmental Organizations Act so it complies with constitutional standards.
Currently, NGOs elect members to a board that regulates their operations. Under the new law, the board would be replaced by an NGO Authority, whose members would be appointed by a cabinet minister.
Charles Kajoloweka, an executive member of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, a grouping of NGOs protesting the bill, said the problem is that the bill also empowers the NGO Authority to suspend and deregister organizations. One such scenario, he said, is a case where groups that stand against corruption or challenge the establishment "will be simply deregistered just the very same day this bill will be passed into law."
The proposed legislation would raise the penalty fee imposed on an NGO flouting the law from the current $70 to $20,000, and would impose a seven-year jail term on NGO leaders found in breach of the law.
Kajoloweka said this is worrisome.
"So, for example, if you delay submitting a report to the NGO Authority, you could be fined to pay MK15 million [$20,000]," he said. "Then the directors of the organization have to be sent to prison for seven years. This basically is a ridiculous provision. It's a provision that can only be found in authoritarian states."
Mavuto Bamusi, adviser to the president on NGOs in the Office of the President and Cabinet, told VOA the aim of the amendment bill is to make the NGOs more accountable to people they save.
"The way the NGO bill has been framed is to make sure that villagers derive value from the projects that NGOs claim to do," he said "And we say this knowing that there are some so-called civil society leaders who are simply enriching themselves at the back of poor Malawians."
Bamusi said the formation of the NGO Authority is not to gag NGOs, but simply to do away with the current situation whereby NGOs regulate themselves through the NGO board.
"You cannot allow a sector regulate itself," he said.
As an example, he said the private sector has institutions that regulate its actions and behaviors.
"And in the case of the civil society," he went on, "we run the risk of having a civil society that is amassing absolute power contrary to the notions of limited powers under democratic set up."
However, the NGOs have so far obtained a court injunction restraining parliament from deliberating on the bill until amendments are made.
But First Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Esther Mcheka-Chilenje, said in parliament this week the National Assembly Powers and Privilege Act does not allow any interruption of business while parliament is sitting.
"Therefore," she said, "such an order may not be served or executed on Parliament. Therefore, Parliament is at liberty to proceed with its business without interferences. I so rule."
But NGOs say the National Assembly risks facing contempt of court charges if it ignores the court's injunction on the matter.
In January this year, the government also attempted to hike annual fee that NGOs pay to the NGO board from $70 to $1,400. The NGOs are still challenging this with a court injunction.