Kenyan journalists and media organisations are up in arms over a new law which includes strict punishments for journalists.
By Peter Townson
Kenyan newspapers condemned the new media law and its adverse impact on democracy and media freedom (AFP)
Journalists in Kenya have expressed their disappointment and anger at the passing of a new media law which could see heavy fines being imposed on members of the media, who can also be prohibited from writing.
A statement from the presidency said: “I shall look at the bill once it is forwarded to me with a view to identifying and addressing possible grey areas to ensure the new media law conforms to the constitution.”
Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who Kenyatta defeated to assume the presidency earlier this year, called on him to remove the law. “We can only ask him to have a change of heart and refuse to sign it because it is bad for the country and goes against the constitution,” he said.
A hindrance to media freedom and democracy
“Assenting to this bill will hinder media freedom as well as democracy in the Country,” deputy CEO and programmes manager of the Media Council of Kenya, Victor Bwire told Doha Centre for Media Freedom.
“The Media Council of Kenya humbly submits to the president not to assent to…the law [which] criminalises the profession of journalism, through intimidation, and very punitive measures,” he added.
Bwire explained that the council was particularly disappointed that the functions of its complaints commission had been transferred to the Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal, arguing that this board of non-professional journalists would seriously affect media freedom and strip the council of one of its primary functions.
“The core idea is that the Media Council’s authority is mainly moral and that criticism by peers is enough punishment for editors. In this way, the sanctions available to Councils tend to go no further than ordering apologies, correction or any deterrent measures. The approach combines a mediatory approach with a judicial one,” stated Bwire.
However, he argued that the new bill contravenes the Kenyan constitution by vesting the power of regulation with the state as opposed to supporting self-regulation.
“The fines the tribunal can impose on journalists and media houses are punitive and outrageous and a backdoor insertion of damages for defamation – this amounts to firming libel and defamation laws but with an even broader sweep,” he noted.
Bwire also opposed the part of the bill which stipulates that at least 45% of media outlets’ programming must be locally produced.
“The capping of local content at 45% for both programming and advertising for each media house is constricting and does not take into account the cost implications and content generation, not mentioning the fact that constitution has unquestionably created a liberal environment for the media as far as content regulation is concerned,” he added.
“Its desirable to promote local content, but what has the government done to promote production of the content? The costs are too high, and incentive should be given: it should be a gradual process.”
“Stifling access to information and freedom of expression”
He said that the general atmosphere among members of the media in Kenya is one of tension and intimidation: “There is apprehension and a general sense of an industry under siege.”
Bwire argued that in passing the bill Parliament has shown that “they are adverse to criticism and are not interested in enhancing the democratisation process in Kenya. They don’t want the media to play the watchdog role as the Fourth Estate on behalf of the public.”
“It is a statement that Parliament is hell bent on stifling access to information and freedom of expression.”
He explained that a number of organisations including the Kenya Editors Guild, Kenya Union of Journalists and the Central Organisation of Trade Unions, as well media owners and the Media Council itself have written in the press calling on the president to repeal the law.
Bwire suggested that journalists and media organisations should petition the president and “move to court to seek for constitutional interpretation so that media freedom and freedom of expression are protected.”
Media under siege
DCMF spoke to William Khayoko of Journalists for Human Rights, a media rights organisation based in Kenya, who said: “It is a sad time in Kenya as we journalists now feel we are under siege.”
“Chances are that that it will be assented to and dupe the public and media because the president will say he was compelled by the parliament under the guise of separation of powers, saying the legislature has to be respected by the executive,” he argued.
Khayoko also pointed to an upcoming bill aimed at limiting the amount of aid NGO’s can receive from foreign countries to 15%. With the majority of funding currently originating from outside the country, he argued that this effectively signals the death knoll for NGO’s in Kenya.
“This amendment will mean civil societies have to source funds locally, which is not practical as even the government itself is relying on foreign aid to support its operations,” he said, adding “in other words the government wants to starve the NGOs of funds.”
Khayoko argued that through silencing NGOs, many of which have criticised government policies in the past, as well as curtailing the power of the media, the Kenyan government is effectively removing two of the major mechanisms for ensuring accountability.
President Kenyatta’s actual response to the new media law is yet to be seen, and it is likely to take some time before any real change is effected.
However, the Kenyan media fraternity is highly unlikely to sit back and allow what they see as the serious curtailment of their rights and the rights of the people of their country to remain informed fully and impartially.
For a country which has a strong tradition of press freedom and an extremely experienced and well-established media fraternity, recent events represent a serious threat to their freedom – a threat they will be hoping can be eradicated as soon as possible.
Source: Doha Centre for Media Freedom
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