NAIROBI: The media can now breathe easy after the National Assembly deleted contentious provisions of the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Bill 2014 and moved to amend the proposed law that has generated a lot of heat. The House was not immune to the sustained pressure from the media, civil society and other political leaders — including the President — and ultimately bowed to a sustained campaign to have clause 34 deleted. This clause had made it illegal for journalists to “publish any false or scandalous information against Parliament, its committees or its proceedings”. It proposed jail terms or hefty fines for journalists and media houses it deemed had defamed Members of Parliament in the eyes of the Speaker of the National Assembly.
This is now water under the bridge and Kenyans are now looking forward to the third reading next week when MPs will endorse a reworked Bill after Speaker Justin Muturi announced that it had been amended by legislators. But even as they await the third reading, the public and other stakeholders will be alive to the proclivity of the 11th Parliament to go against the grain and introduce laws that disregard fundamental rights of the media as captured in articles 33, 34 and 35 of the Constitutions that guarantee Freedom of Expression, Freedom of the Media and Freedom of Access to Information.
Previously, laws to gag the media have been camouflaged in innocuous looking pieces of legislation and when some of these laws have ended up in court, their provisions have been struck off by judges on account of their unconstitutionality.
This then raises the question; how much consultation with the Attorney General’s office and other relevant stakeholders actually take place before a Bill gets to the floor of the House? Is there rigorous engagement by members of the House Business Committee and other committees before stakeholders and the public are consulted over the provisions of these laws?
The National Assembly is increasingly being portrayed as a House lacking in merit on many fronts, and one that is insensitive to the civil liberties of Kenyans. A strong National Assembly with effective oversight mechanisms and committees is critical to a democratic system of checks and balances. This is something that the 11th Parliament must bear in mind as it embarks on the second half its five-year term.
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The House’s antagonistic relationship with the media has been demonstrated by various uncharitable laws that has been debated on the floor of the assembly. In just two-and-a half years, there have four spirited attempts to gag media. It started with the Kenya Information and Communication Amendment Act 2013, The Media Council Act 2013, The Security Laws Amendment Act 2013 and now the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act 2014.
And that is why journalists will be wary when the Freedom of Access to Information private members bill sponsored by Nyeri Women’s Representative Prsicilla Nyokabi comes to the floor of the House for debate.
The passage of retrogressive laws that roll back the gains of democracy reflect a failure on the part of National Assembly leadership.
As the key legislative organ, the National Assembly has the onerous role of adapting Kenya’s laws to the rapidly changing needs of society. As representatives of the people entrusted with the oversight of government, legislators are responsible for ensuring that the government is fully accountable to the people and laws are in tandem with the letter and spirit of the Constitution.
Any laws that seek to circumvent media oversight are unacceptable and must be rejected.