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Government renews assaults on Kenya’s media

BUSINESS
By | January 11th 2010

By Maseme Machuka

The country’s robust media environment was sullen over the weekend as gains on media freedom dimmed after the gazettement of new laws meant to regulate broadcasting.

It has emerged that the State launched the fresh assault on the media without consultations with critical stakeholders. Lawyers, media stakeholders and the public have termed the draconian regulations unlawful and insisted should be repealed.

The Government’s latest move to gag the media has drawn criticism from media owners, journalists and leaders. Photo: File/Standard

The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications Bitange Ndemo said the Kenya Communications (Broadcasting) Regulations 2009 took effect from January 1 this year. Senior counsel Paul Muite said the laws are unconstitutional and against the freedom of the media as enshrined in the draft constitution.

Muite said the Government was hiding under the guise of regulation to control the media.

The new law seeks to define how news is written and presented, how apologies should be crafted and how adverts should be run.

Met with outrage

Some of the laws that have been met with outrage by media owners and journalists are the ban cross-media ownership, the move to censure content and the setting of rules for political coverage during elections. Section 23 of the Act, for example, says: "A licensee shall endeavour to ensure that when broadcasting controversial issues of public interest during live broadcasts, a wide range of views and opinions are represented."

Media practitioners were yesterday wondering what would be the perimeters of defining a controversial issue and the number of views that would be considered as "a wide range". The law also requires every broadcaster to run their identity every 60 seconds.

"These regulations are not about regulating the media they are about controlling what the Kenya people see on television and listen to on radio. It is absolute control of content and the manner in, which the media industry is going to be managed," said Muite.

He termed the regulations as "dangerous and constituting a frontal assault on media freedom in Kenya."

Kenyan public need to be aware that the regulations were aimed at them who are the biggest beneficiary of media freedom.

"Corruption, ills committed by government and exposing of scandals, which have been on the media, may be a thing of the past if the Government moves to implement the regulations," he said.

Muite said it was the media that acts as a checks and balance for the Government in any institution in a functional democracy. That right and responsibility was being eroded in the new regulations announced by Dr Ndemo.

Without the media, observed Muite, then corruption and the evils that come with them will be eroded.

"I call upon Kenyan to push for a repeal of the regulations. During the truce we negotiated for spearheaded by the Prime Minister Raila Odinga resorting to acceptable amendments being effected to the Act via the Statute law Miscellaneous Amendments Act. The issues of control were very critical and even where the issues of regulating the media was concerned the question of who is going to effect the regulating is very important. The media put up the case before the PM. They were clear that the Government couldn’t be the one regulating. It was on that reason that an independent council was set up to through the Statute and given mandate in law to attend to regulation," said Muite at a pres conference at the Nairobi Club.

Media Owners Association (MOA) has vowed to fight the newly gazetted laws aimed at controlling the media.

MOA read ulterior motives saying the new regulations were crafted in bad faith. Chairman Linus Gitahi called for consensus on the way forward. The Kenya Editors Guild chairman Macharia Gaitho described the new regulations as retrogressive and obnoxious. He wondered why the Ministry of Information had employed "subterfuge and deceit in publishing the regulations despite an agreement with media stakeholders last year mediated by Prime Minister Raila Odinga."

Repressive changes

Gaitho recalled how last year when the industry opposed repressive amendments to the Communications Act, the Prime Minister called a meeting in his office attended by both the ministry and media representatives.

Minister Samuel Poghisio and Permanent Secretary Bitange Ndemo represented the ministry.

"The media industry was represented by officials of the Kenya Editors Guild, the Media Owners Association and the Kenya Union of Journalists. Both sides agreed and shook hands on a proposal tabled by Attorney-General Amos Wako, that removed the clauses seen by the media as repressive. Why the change of heart now?" he asked.

"When we were negotiating, the idea was to form a Broadcasting Council and it was the council which was supposed to develop regulations," Mr Gitahi said. "No other body should have done that."

It was also agreed that outstanding issues of broadcast content would be handled jointly between the industry and the regulatory authorities. However, said Mr Gaitho, the ministry had gone behind the agreement mediated by the Prime Minister by re-introducing under the guise of regulations the offensive sections struck out from the Act.

"The government is now constituting itself as a co-director of all media houses in the country. A co-director who has an upper hand to reverse the gains made in media freedom," added Muite.

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