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Kenyan Government Defends Performance on Press

The Kenyan government dismisses a report by a U.S.-based human rights group that has downgraded Kenya's press freedom rating.

Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua says his country has never experienced more press freedom than in recent years, nor has there been such commitment by the government to build good relations with the press and to ensure freedom of expression.

"People can write whatever they want, people can say whatever they want," he said

. "We've given more radio licenses. We are going to expand community radios. We're expanding the reach of television. We're opening up to let people publish newspapers and magazines freely. On top of that, we're also drafting the Freedom of Information Act, so that we can get rid all of the laws that are not applicable such as the [Official] Secrets Act. We are also taking up bills and legislation to get rid of any legislation that may impede freedom of expression, freedom of access, and freedom of movement."

The U.S.-based human rights group, Freedom House, issues an annual report on world press freedom. It categorizes countries as free, partly free, or not free, based on the legal environment in which media operate, political influences on reporting, access to information and economic pressures on content and the dissemination of news.

In its 2005 report, based on data compiled in the previous year, Freedom House downgraded Kenya's rating from partly free to not free.

The survey says the government cracked down on the tabloid press and failed to liberalize strict media laws.

Particularly worrying, says the survey, was the early 2004 seizure by police of nine publications sold on the street, and the confiscation of printing plates and other equipment from another newspaper under the Books and Newspapers Act.

Mwalimu Mati, deputy executive director of Transparency International-Kenya, a group that tracks corruption, says staff members of the Kenyan daily, The Standard, were arrested awhile back, and charged with stealing a videotape allegedly connected with the murder of the chairman of a constitutional committee.

He says The Standard also was charged with criminal libel in another case that was eventually withdrawn by the attorney general, and he recalls a period of several days in which a pro-government radio station jammed the frequency of another station more critical of the government.

"There's been this development of a prickly relationship between certain media houses and political figures," said Mwalimu Mati. "People perceive that some of these events are an indication that there's a flexing of muscles on the part of these political actors."

Mr. Mati says there is a perception among most Kenyans that the press is less free than it was in 2003, especially in the area of reporting about corruption.

The government's Mr. Mutua denies any wrongdoing, saying that the Standard staff was accused of breaking theft laws under the penal code, and that, in the other case, it was private citizens - and not the government - who made the libel accusations.

Kenya is one of 24 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that Freedom House classifies as being not free. Other countries in the same category include Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Somalia.