Kenyan newspapers condemned a planned media law approved by legislators because it may impose stiff penalties on reporters and seeks to set-up a government-appointed regulator that violates the constitution.
The front-page headline on Kenya’s top-selling newspaper, the Daily Nation, read “Dark Days: MPs Pass Law to Control Media,” while the rival Standard newspaper said “Democracy Under Attack.”
“In one dramatic swoop, parliament has written away the media’s rights,” the Nairobi-based Daily Nation said. “It is a frightening place and it is valid to ask: What is there to prevent parliament from similarly sweeping away the independence of the judiciary tomorrow?”
The Kenya Information and Communication Bill backed by parliament yesterday transfers authority of media regulation to a tribunal set up by the state from the semi-independent Media Council of Kenya, the newspaper said. The bill, which covers newspapers, broadcasters, blogs and other types of websites, needs President Uhuru Kenyatta’s approval to become law.
Kenya ranks 71 out of 179 nations on Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 Press Freedom Index, rising 13 steps from a year earlier and ahead of other African nations including Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Uganda and Burundi. In July, Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto vowed to uphold press freedoms and said the media has a crucial role in the democratic nation.
“The government should not be meddling in this space,” Amadou Mahtar Ba, chief executive officer of Africa Media Initiative, a United Nations-supported program to strengthen media on the continent, said in a phone interview. “This bill is hugely disappointing and unexpected to come from Kenya, which should be leading on democracy in the region.”
The changes come as Kenyatta faces trial at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity for organizing violence following a disputed election in December 2007 that left more than 1,100 people dead. The Hague-based court yesterday delayed the start date of his trial to Feb. 5 from Nov. 12. Ruto’s trial on similar charges began Sept. 10. Both men say they are innocent.
Manoah Esipisu, a spokesman in the Kenyan presidency, declined to comment when called today.
Under the act, media agencies face fines of as much as 20 million Kenyan shillings ($234,267) and individual journalists 1 million shillings for breaking the law and breaching a code of conduct. The Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal can recommend suspension and deregistration of journalists.
“Since the tribunal can choose to slap the fines on media that hold a different view from government, effectively all non-ruling party media can be shut down in a few weeks with these outrageous fines,” the Daily Nation said.
Kenya’s Inspector-General of Police, David Kimaiyo, on Oct. 23 threatened to arrest journalists after reports that security personnel looted shops during a deadly four-day attack by Islamist militants on a shopping mall in Nairobi in September.
The Nation Media Group Ltd., which runs the Daily Nation, is mostly owned by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, a unit of the Aga Khan Development Network.
The stock gained 0.3 percent to 320 shillings by 3:04 p.m. in Nairobi, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Standard Group Ltd., the owner of the Standard newspaper, jumped 9.4 percent to 29 shillings.