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Kenyan parliament launches attack on media, president urged not to sign proposed bill into law

Security personnel drag away a Kenyan journalist, as Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki's delivers his speech during Independence Day (Jamhuri Day) celebrations at the Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi December 12, 2008. During the event a number of Kenyan journalists were removed while protesting against a contentious media bill, which critics say is intended to limit press freedom. During the violence after Kenya's presidential election late last year, the government banned all live broadcasts for several weeks, citing national security.Photo: Associated Press (AP) / Khalil Senosi

The confrontation between the government and the press in Kenya has escalated. Parliamentarians on December 16 launched a scathing attack on the media and vowed to ensure it is "tamed."

One member after another tore into the media, apparently angered by the all-out campaign against a controversial Bill recently passed by Parliament that seeks to give the government power to control media content, the Nairobi-based Media Institute reported. The onslaught was started by Bura MP Danson Mungatana who rose to complain about being labelled as Enemy No 1 of the media for supporting the Bill that seeks to control the content, manner and scheduling of radio and TV programmes.

The Kenya Communications Amendments Bill 2008, passed by a mere 25 MPs (below the required quorum of 30 of the 222 members), has far reaching implications for press freedom in the country, according to Media Institute. It sets up a Communications Commission whose members are appointed by the minister for information to licence broadcast media and draw up a programming code which all media will be required to comply with.

It also empowers the minister to issue directives "of a general nature" on media content and operations on top of the existing law which allows the government to take over stations and impound broadcasting equipment in the interest of public safety and tranquility or "any public emergency," at the minister's sole discretion.

The media had called for amendments to the law, which has been abused in the past to raid media houses and impose a ban on live broadcasting at the beginning of 2008. However, all their proposals have been ignored by the MPs in retaliation against media criticism of their refusal to pay taxes.

On December 12, several journalists and human rights activists were arrested as they staged a protest during celebrations to mark Kenya's 45th Independence Anniversary. The protest, which marred the celebrations, prompted Prime Minister Raila Odinga to call a meeting with media owners on December 15, at which he was presented a memorandum urging President Mwai Kibaki not to assent to the law. However, on December 16, when Odinga attempted to make the pitch for press freedom in Parliament, he encountered hostility from MPs who have vowed to ensure the draconian Bill becomes law.

Odinga and President Kibaki are partners in a coalition government formed under international mediation after Kenya's disputed presidential election triggered violence early in 2008. The MPs speaking in support of the Bill were mainly from the Kibaki-led side of the coalition, and included Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Justice Minister Martha Karua, who accused the prime minister of "playing to the gallery". Speaker Kenneth Marende said he would rule on the complaints raised against the media at an "opportune time" as foot-thumping members vowed to do everything in their power to reign in the press.

Meanwhile, the media has dug in for what is turning out to be a hard-fought battle. They formed a broad committee to coordinate their actions and responses, which immediately released a memorandum of reasons for the media's rejection of the new law. They are also seeking an audience with the president. The president has 14 days (expiring on December 22) within which to sign the Bill into law or let it lapse, in which case the proposal would become void.

Date posted: December 19, 2008 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 345