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Government attempts to curb media freedom

Last October, The Miscellaneous Amendment Bill (2001), introduced by the Attorney General, Amos Wako, was met with criticism from media practitioners, civil society and politicians. It was seen as an attempt to gag the Press ahead of the elections expected late this year
Brian Adeba

The media bill sought to change the Books and Newspapers Act and the Films and Stage Plays Act. For the former, the bill sought to increase to one million shillings (US$ 13,000) the previously 10,000 shillings (about US$ 130) bond required by the Registrar General for anyone wishing to publish a newspaper.

For the latter, the bill sought to prohibit the screening of films, television programs, advertisements and stage plays without the approval of the government. In short, the screening of the above mentioned would have to be approved by the equivalent of a press commissar in the former communist Soviet Union.

Not surprisingly, the bill received sharp and instant criticism from numerous civic groups in Kenya. Mutuma Mathiu, a columnist for the Sunday Nation called it "an attempt to control the minds of the people by filtering what they hear, read and watch". He called it "prior censorship" and condemned it as a "vile and evil crime". The Law Society of Kenya (LSK) called the bill "too restrictive". The Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) and a freedom of expression watchdog, the Media Institute, were equally sharp in their condemnation of the bill.

The media bill also sought to impose stiff penalties for offenders. Failure to pay the one million shillings bond required for publishing, will earn a first offender a fine not exceeding one million or be liable to jail for up to three years or both. Repeat offenders will get five years in jail and will be banned from publishing any newspaper in Kenya. The law currently provides a fine of 2,000 shillings (US$ 25) only or three months in jail or both.

As if this was not draconian enough, the media bill sought to impose a fine of 100,000 shillings (US$ 1,282) for publishers who fail to maintain their publications for six months. This is the third time in five years that the Attorney General’s office has suggested laws of this nature to the Kenyan public. The first two attempts were shelved following intense criticism from civic, religious and media groups.

Compared to her neighbours in east and central and the horn of Africa, Kenya has enjoyed a relative political stability that has in turn earned it a modicum of press freedom in the last three decades. Even before the advent of multi-party politics in this region, Kenya, in comparison to her neighbours, enjoyed some form of press freedom. But this is not to say that the press was entirely free.

However in the wake of multi-party politics in 1992, new heights in media freedom were achieved following the repeal of a whole set of oppressive laws in Section 2A of the Kenyan constitution.

But Wako, knowing the criticism such a bill would elicit, and perhaps taking a cue or two from history, put it as one of many laws to be amended in the Miscellaneous Amendment Bill.

Conspicuously absent from the litany of voices criticising the so-called media bill, were parliamentarians from the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU). Only two rebel KANU MPs, Kipruto arap Kirwa and Jimmy Angwenyi added their voices to the condemnation of the bill. This, say media observers, is an indication of how the majority of the ruling party’s MPs will vote. The bill requires a simple quorum for it to be passed and if the government so desires, it will have no problem in using its majority clout in parliament to pass it. For a country that has embraced democracy, such a bill does not do Kenya’s image any good.

But why did the Attorney General introduce this bill? Some say this is an election year and KANU wants to gag the voice of the opposition in the media or to control criticism of high-ranking government officials by the alternate press otherwise known locally as the "gutter press".

The gutter press, usually leaflets printed on A4 size paper has been accused of ignoring all the ethics of journalism. Masquerading as exposers of graft, these publications have no regard for accuracy, fairness and objectivity in their reporting. As such, their content is highly libelous and out to tarnish the reputation of its victims, usually top government officials.

Ironically the gutter press is an offshoot of the advent of greater media freedom. It is sponsored and used by politicians across the political divide to mud sling each other. For as little as 10,000 shillings (US$ 130) paid as bond to the Registrar, anyone can now afford to publish. The law requires that a publisher give a physical address and a telephone number.

But because of constant harassment due to the nature of their reporting, many gutter press owners, will for instance, give a physical address in the coastal city of Mombasa, while they publish from Nairobi. This makes it extremely difficult for law enforcement officers to track them down to answer cases in court. However, the gutter press sometimes reports stories that are true and which can never see the light of day in the mainstream media. The other fact is that most the gutter press don’t even bother to swear the bond.

Media observers argue that the "excuse" to gag the gutter press is not good enough since Kenya already has in place tough laws on libel. A few weeks after Wako introduced the bill, the courts, in two separate occasions, imposed an astronomical sum totaling 30 billion shillings on the East African Standard and the Kenya Times for libel.

Truth be said, the gutter press is not the only vocal critic of the government. Some sections of the mainstream media have also been critical to the extent of exposing high-level corruption like the hydra-headed Goldenberg Scandal, which still haunts this country today. In such cases, the mainstream media is usually ready to back up its claims with evidence and this has made the power brokers wary. Wako accuses the media of failing to regulate itself and dwelling too much on making criticism of the government a favorite past time, hence the introduction of the bill.

Though the Miscellaneous Amendment Bill (2001) went through the first reading in parliament, intense criticism from within and outside Kenya forced the Attorney General to make amendments to the media section. The Bill was shelved just before parliament broke for Christmas recess. Hopefully, it will not be re-tabled with the draconian articles intact.

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