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Kenyan Journalists Complain About Excessive Libel Fines - 2001-11-29

Journalists in Kenya are appealing what they say are excessive awards for libel against the media. The journalists believe there is a conspiracy to muzzle the press before next year's presidential election.

In the past week, Kenyan courts have ordered two newspapers, the Kenya Times and the East African Standard, to pay $400,000 in damages for libel. The Kenya Union of Journalists argues that these fines are excessive and designed to economically cripple the media.

It is sponsoring one of the journalists, Philip Ochieng, to appeal for a constitutional interpretation of the ruling. One of the hottest current topics in the Kenya media is speculation about who will succeed President Daniel arap Moi in the 2002 elections.

Mr. Moi has been in power since 1978 and he is constitutionally obliged to step down next year. But the constitution is under review. Some analysts fear the rules could be changed to allow the president to run again.

The secretary general of the Kenya Union of Journalists, Ezekiel Mutua, says libel laws are being used to scare journalists from exposing wrongdoings. "I think there is a conspiracy here within the judiciary and also the executive to muzzle the press, especially at a time when this country is undergoing major political changes. It is a conspiracy to scare journalists so that when we get to these very critical moments next year, when Moi is supposed to get out of power, according to the current constitution, probably there will be attempts to change or interfere with the law. And the media cannot expose those things for fear of libel. Many people would not want to expose any personalities that are involved in crime or any other ills in the society," he said.

There are other problems facing Kenya's media houses. Journalists are campaigning against government plans to change the country's media laws. One lobby group, the Kenya Human Rights Network, describes the proposed amendments as, quote, "a shameless invitation to criminalize freedom of expression."

Under the proposed legislation, the bond that must be paid in order to publish in Kenya would be increased from $120 to $12,000 dollars. Mr. Mutua of the journalists union says this would discourage people from investing in the media at a time when there is growing demand for information, especially in local languages.

The bill would also ban broadcasters from televising films, programs or advertisements without a license. Mr. Mutua says this clause would give the government power to censor news items it deems unfavorable. "They are outrageous to say the least. They are against the spirit of democracy. If I go out there and cover a story, I have to take that clip to be, you know, approved by the regulator before I put it on air. And you know the way we operate in the media, you cannot do that because there is no time really. You want to give news as events occur. If you have to take it first to the censor to approve. Really, the idea is to curtail the operations of the media," Mr. Mutua explained.

Kenya Attorney-General Amos Wako says the proposed amendments are needed because the media fails to regulate itself. There have been numerous complaints of bad reporting, particularly by what some in Kenya call the "gutter press," which regularly publishes scandalous - and often false - reports on politicians or prominent individuals.

Mr. Mutua says he understands that journalists must act responsibly and respect the private rights of individuals. But he says the mainstream media must also be given enough freedom to practice its role as a public watchdog.

The media are urging the Kenyan government to drop the bill and instead support its efforts at self-regulation through a new Code of Conduct for journalists, already introduced, and a voluntary Media Council to be launched later this year.