Reporters Without Borders believes that a proposed new media law currently before Kenya’s parliament would, if adopted, represent a big step backwards for press freedom in a country known for diverse and outspoken media. The “Kenya Communications Amendment Bill 2008,” also known as the “ICT Bill,” would reinforce government control over media companies and programme content.
“It is particularly shocking that the political class is uniting behind the ICT Bill while journalists are unanimous in criticising it as draconian and vindictive,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We urge the authorities to respect and reinforce independent regulatory bodies and not subordinate them to a minister’s discretionary powers.”
The press freedom organisation added: “This bill must not be adopted as it stands. We call for it to be withdrawn and reexamined in consultation with media professionals.”
Currently in its third reading - the penultimate legislative stage before adoption by President Mwai Kibaki - the ICT Bill provides for heavy fines and prison sentences for press offences. It also envisages the creation of a government-appointed “communications commission” that would be in charge of granting broadcast licences.
The information minister would be empowered to “issue policy guidelines” to the commission although it is described as “independent,” while article 86 of the bill gives the minister the unilateral power to interrupt broadcasts, dismantle radio and TV stations and tap telephones. The internal security minister, for his part, is empowered to seize broadcasting equipment.
If adopted, the ICT Bill would even give the information minister power to control programme content, as the commission he appoints would also be responsible for ensuring the “good taste” of broadcasts.
David Makali, the head of the Nairobi-based Media Institute, said: “Culturally diverse societies such as Kenya do not have a universal value of what is good or abhorrent, and the discretion of the editor, guided by professional ethics and the existing laws on public nuisance and morality, is in our view adequate.”
But Kenyan Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka insisted last week that the ICT Bill would reinforce the media’s “professionalism.”
The bill has sparked an outcry among Kenyan journalists and in the international community and, on 1 December, the Media Institute and Kenya Editors Guild called for it to be withdrawn to allow for more consultations. If it is adopted in its current form, the Media Institute has threatened to challenge its constitutionality.
“Regulation of professional or editorial content should be left to the professionally inclined mechanisms of the existing Media Council,” Makali said. “Given this government’s track record of relations with the media over the past six years, the media has cause to be apprehensive that the amendments as proposed will seriously curtail media freedom.”
Reporters Without Borders points out that in a report issued on 6 March - entitled “How far to go? Kenya’s media caught in the turmoil of a failed election” - it urged the Kenyan authorities to be less mistrustful and hostile towards the media and to help them strengthen their ability to regulate themselves, work together and train journalists.