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Kenya Media Law Stirs Controversy

A new government-sponsored media law is in effect in Kenya which critics say gives the government too much power and influence over what should be a free and independent press. The government counters by saying the media law is needed to increase professionalism within the Kenyan media.

A heckler was carted off during Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki's Independence Day speech in December. Journalists recorded and aired the unusual occurrence. But media practitioners fear that reporting such controversial events may soon become a thing of the past.

At issue is the Kenya Communications (Amendment) Bill 2008, dubbed "The Media Bill," which passed in Parliament late last year. It is meant primarily to regulate the growth and use of communications technologies such as satellites, mobile telephones, and Internet.

But Section 46 of the act also enables the government-appointed Communications Commission of Kenya, or CCK, to have, in the law's words, "the power to set standards for the manner, time, and type of programs to be broadcast."

That does not sit well with Linus Gitahi, the chief executive officer of Nation Media Group Limited and chairman of the Media Owners Association. He told us, "CCK are the ones who give you frequencies, granted. They are going to regulate what you do, they are going to regulate your content, and, by the way, if they are not happy with your content, they are going to fire you. The ultimate firing is: they are going to withdraw the frequencies."

His fear is that investigative journalism, particularly reports exposing government wrong-doing, may be severely curtailed by the communications commission.

Gitahi urges the government to give the self-regulatory body Media Council of Kenya the chance to uphold journalistic standards and determine programming content.

But self-regulation has not worked in the past, argues Assistant Minister of State for Defence David Musila. He thinks self-regulation has not worked in the past and that the government needs to step in.

In a recent interview, he pointed to the coverage of the post-election upheaval following the 2007 elections as an example. "During the first few months this year, with the unfortunate episode of violence, we have evidence that a lot of this was the result of mobile telephone messages, including even FM stations,” he said. Mr. Musila added, “Remember the case of the Rwandan genocide - that was the result of a radio station."

Another concern for media advocates is that the new law upholds a regulation that would allow the Minister for Internal Security to raid media houses and confiscate equipment during a state of emergency, or as the law puts it: "in the interest of public safety and tranquility."

Also, the law provides for heavy fines and jail terms for media offenses. Media practitioners accuse politicians of creating and using the legislation to silence the media.

Macharia Gaitho is a columnist with The Daily Nation and chairman of the Kenya Editors' Guild. He fears the government will use the new law to pave the way for the next elections scheduled for 2012.

"If there are people who are corrupt, they may think that they can guard the media so they are not exposed,” said Gaitho. “If there are people who are planning to do something, like rig elections or loot the Central Bank, and they think the media might be an impediment because it can expose them, [they will] guard the media in advance."

But Musila says silencing the media is not the government's intention. "Really, I don't understand the fear. But you see, people don't want to be regulated - they want to be free to do whatever they want and I can understand the anxiety. Where media has been operating without regulations and now the government is attempting to regulate them, I can understand why they are apprehensive," he added.

Senior ministers say the government may be willing to consider amending the new law given its widespread opposition.