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Proposed Media Law in Kenya Draws Comparison to Zimbabwe


Kenya's parliament has postponed debate on a controversial bill that would give the government the power to license and control media companies and the content of their programs. The proposed bill has sparked an outcry among Kenyan journalists and from international media watchdogs.

Kenya's Speaker of Parliament Kenneth Marende says debate on the bill has been postponed until next week because what are described as necessary amendments have not been completed.

Critics say the proposed law, known as the ICT Bill, seeks to curtail media freedom through a government-appointed commission, which would have the power to grant or deny licenses.

The bill also proposes to give Kenya's information minister the power to issue guidelines to the commission, wiretap journalists and media organizations, and to interrupt radio and television broadcasts. The minister would also have the power to control programming content, through a new commission that would have the responsibility of ensuring that all broadcasts are in what the government terms "good taste."

Kenya's internal security minister would be given the authority to raid media houses and seize and destroy equipment.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders says it is shocked by what it believes is a blatant attempt by the Kenyan government to block criticisms by muzzling the media. The organization's editor-in-chief, Leonard Vincent, says the measures in the Kenyan ICT Bill is strikingly similar to those being enforced by the government of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, where the media has been sharply restricted.

"Creating a commission that is supposedly independent but in reality controlled by the government and by the minister is something that of course reminds us automatically of the Media and Information Commission of Zimbabwe [which is] responsible for the slow and cruel death of the Zimbabwean independent press," he said. "Kenya has the reputation of having one of the most diverse and outspoken press in East Africa. Now, the situation would not become like Zimbabwe in one year. But it would be possible to turn the media landscape into something that would look like Zimbabwe."

VOA was unable to reach government officials for comment. But last week, Kenya's Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka defended the proposed media law, saying that it would help encourage professionalism in the industry.

Vincent says only dictators and autocratic regimes use the word "professionalism" to justify draconian actions against the media.

"When they want to control journalists, they call for professionalism," he said. "They say, 'They are not trained. They do no have a conscience of responsibility,' or whatever. But what they are doing is just deteriorating the democratic structure of the country."

On Friday, the editors of Kenya's leading newspaper, the Daily Nation, echoed Reporters Without Borders' criticisms of the ICT bill.

An editorial said that the Kenyan government is not seeking powers to improve governance, but powers it would need "to oppress the people and hide wrongdoings."

If the bill passes parliamentary scrutiny next week, it will be sent to President Mwai Kibaki for adoption.

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