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House passes draconian media law stifling free speech

By ALPHONCE SHIUNDU | Updated Fri, November 1st 2013 at 00:00 GMT +3
Freedom of the press
                                                Police officer bars a journalist     Photo: Courtesy

By ALPHONCE SHIUNDU

Democracy and free speech were dealt a major blow last evening when Parliament passed one of the most draconian media laws in Kenya’s history.

 It took only 28 MPs a record 30 minutes to approve the repressive Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) Bill that effectively placed restrictions on hard fought democratic space.

Under the Bill, the MPs sanctioned a government-appointed tribunal with sweeping powers to crack down on the media by slapping punitive fines on journalists and media houses. They imposed a Sh20 million maximum fine for all media houses and Sh1 million for individual journalists ruled to have breached the code of conduct.

The Bill establishes the Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal, which has been given sweeping powers to even attach property of journalists and media houses to recover the hefty fines.

Worse still, the tribunal has the powers to recommend the suspension and/or de-registration of journalists, a function that is only performed by professional associations.

The Bill effectively erodes the democratic space, taking away society’s right to information and hits at the guarantee to freedom of speech that is enshrined in the Constitution.

The Bill goes further to regulate how media houses make their money by setting a limit on foreign advertising in local media – a move designed to shrink their sources of revenue. This action appears designed to cripple operations of the public watchdogs.  Curiously, the passing of the punitive measures comes against the backdrop of official condemnation of the media coverage of the Westgate Mall siege and recent threats against journalists.

Mr Kiprono Kittony, the chairman Media Owners Association, said the bill as approved by the National Assembly is taking us back to the dark ages of government control of Media in Kenya. “The media in Kenya is seen as a leader in Africa but to create an authority that is government controlled to determine all matters of content and to impose draconian fines of up to Sh20 million for media houses and Sh1 million for journalists with a possibility of deregistration for life is an attempt to muzzle the media.

UNDER FEAR

Commercial growth and creativity is likely to be a thing of the past if media practitioners will have to operate under fear. 

And Mr Joseph Odindo, chairman of Media Council of Kenya, said members of the council are shocked by the amendments introduced by MPs.

“They are retrogressive, dictatorial and they take this country back to the political Stone Age. We negotiated with these MPs and they have shown singular bad faith. We will carry this battle to the next stage and fight every attempt to deny the media of this country freedom.

We hope President Uhuru will be wise enough to reject the Bill as President Kibaki did in similar situation.”

Under the new measures, the government has immense control over the Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal, given that all the members will be picked by a selection panel formed by the Cabinet Secretary.  Only 28 MPs, including Majority Leader Aden Duale and Deputy Minority Leader Jakoyo Midiwo, were in the House when MPs approved the amendments to the Bill at Committee Stage of the whole House, presided over by Deputy Speaker Joyce Laboso at 4.35 pm. Speaker Justin Muturi resumed the seat at 4.55 pm at which point the House Committee presented its report, which was accepted and passed.

The quorum for the House is 50 MPs, but the Speaker, or whoever is presiding over business, is blind to a lack of quorum unless he is notified about it. House rules and the Constitution are clear that any Bill approved without quorum is invalid.

When the Bill came for the Third Reading, Energy, Communications and Information Committee chairman Jamleck Kamau walked out of the chamber and called more MPs to the House.

More MPs were seen coming in to debate the Public Investments Committee report on the contract between National Cereals and Produce Board and Erad company.

Limiting press freedom

Majority Leader Duale complained that the numbers in the House were inadequate: “This is a very good, though controversial Bill, but members are not here. This House should have been more full when this Bill is passed.”

When Speaker Muturi put the matter to vote at 5.08 pm, there were over 60 MPs in the House. They all unanimously voted ‘aye’ to send the Bill, with the offending amendments, to President Uhuru Kenyatta for assent.

It is now up to the President, who has consistently reiterated his government’s respect for media freedom, to decide whether the punitive measures will ultimately become law.

Under the Bill, MPs gave themselves power to control the airwaves following approval of controversial last-minute amendments. They denied the Cabinet Secretary the power to pick members of the new Communications Authority of Kenya, and instead said that was the domain of MPs. They amended the Bill to state that MPs would vet all nominees to the communications authority.

The lawmakers also want the government to decide what the public will see and when they will see it. They said half of what Kenyans will view on daytime television will be local content.

“A broadcaster licensed to distribute radio and TV programme services shall make sure that 45 per cent of programmes and advertisements broadcast on TV and radio on any given day comprise local content,” said Nicholas Gumbo (Rarieda).

The MP said that media houses would have 18 months to terminate advertising contracts with foreign firms to meet the prescribed quota. His colleagues agreed with him and approved the amendment. That will cripple the news business and affect what the public will get to see.

Jamleck Kamau (Kigumo), backed the amendments and claimed before his colleagues in the House that the amendments had been agreed by all the industry players.The punitive fines against media houses and journalists will be imposed by a five-member tribunal strictly appointed by a team appointed by the Cabinet Secretary in charge of Information and Communication, Dr Fred Matiang’i. The tribunal will also have powers to de-register journalists.

On the face of it, the MPs argued that by creating the Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal, they were trying to guarantee the independence of the body from the industry players.

Last night the Kenya Editors Guild rejected the law passed by the National Assembly as an affront to media freedom. “The laws are unconstitutional and in complete contravention of stakeholder input reached through consensus. It will reverse gains made in Kenya on freedom of the media,” said the chairperson Macharia Gaitho and vice-chairperson David Ohito.


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