News / Africa

Kenyan Journalists Voice Opposition to Harsh Media Bill

Pamela Dockins
Kenyan media organizations are urging President Uhuru Kenyatta to veto a bill that could sharply limit press freedom.  The measure passed by parliament on Thursday would make journalists subject to restrictions and large fines.

The Kenyan parliament has passed a bill that would create a Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal.

The government tribunal would have the power to impose fines of up to $240,000 on news organizations that violate its code of conduct for journalism practices.  The tribunal could also slap individual reporters with fines of more than $10,000 for violating its rules.

The bill cleared parliament late Thursday, at a time when only a small number of lawmakers were on hand to vote.

Linus Gitahi is CEO of the Nation Media Group, whose brands include The Daily Nation, Kenya's largest newspaper.

Gitahi says his group will fight the measure in court because the proposed tribunal would be unconstitutional.

"The constitution is very clear, that people who are going to be involved in the regulation of the media are people who are free of political and commercial interests," said Gitahi.

Gitahi also says the proposal would set up a quasi-government organization that would regulate the media.

"If you have a quasi-government organization regulating you or hovering over the journalists and media houses with huge penalties that they can levy - what that means in one sentence is you can not cover government negatively.  Now, if you can not cover government negatively, that means that government has a free ticket to do what they want," he said.

Some journalists have voiced concern that the measure may have been prompted by Kenyan press coverage of the September terrorist attack at Nairobi's Westgate Mall.

Some government officials criticized the coverage, including the release of video that showed security forces apparently looting items from a mall store.

Also, local news organizations said some of the security personnel who died in the mall siege were killed by friendly fire.

Tom Rhodes is the East Africa representative for the Committee to Project Journalists.

He says the it appears there is a link between the mall attack and parliament's measure.

"It appears that since the Kenyan press did such a good job of investigating the Westgate Mall attack that the government seems to be sort of reactive and is trying to push through this harsh bill," said Rhodes.

Rhodes says if the bill becomes law, it could inspire similar types of laws in other east African countries.

"My fear is that if press freedom conditions deteriorate - and they will underneath this bill in Kenya - it will have a domino effect with the other countries in east Africa and we will see sort of deteriorating conditions across the region," he said.

There has been no word on whether President Uhuru Kenyatta will sign the media tribunal measure into law.

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