Human rights groups and media organizations are expressing concern that a law passed Wednesday by Kenya's parliament could greatly limit press freedom in the country. Critics are also questioning the timing of the new law, as Kenya will be holding presidential elections at the end of the year. The government says the law is meant to restrain the country's "gutter press". But critics say it is meant to muzzle all the press.

President Daniel Arap Moi has yet to sign the bill into law. In an interview with VOA, Binaifer Nowrojee of Human Rights Watch says her organization is urging the president not to sign it.

"This is a bill designed to mute public criticism in the run-up to national elections to be held at the end of the year," she said. "One of things that we are calling for is that the president should not sign the bill. It's still not actually been enacted and we're hoping there'll be one last reprieve. It's clearly not a good thing for freedom of expression."

The new law increases an insurance bond that publishers must pay for libel damages to one million shillings, almost $13,000. The law also imposes a fine, or six month prison term, for vendors and distributors who do not establish whether publishers of publications they sell have paid the bond.

Media owners warn that the new law, if signed by President Moi, is likely to drive small and provincial publications out of business because they will not be able to afford the increased cost of the insurance bond. The government says the legislation is needed to restrain Kenya's press, which regularly prints stories about cabinet ministers' private lives.

Ms. Nowrojee says the government should give the media the chance to regulate itself.

"There are alternate ways that you can put standards for the press, including allowing the press themselves to self-monitor which is what they have proposed," she said. "But by raising the amount of fines and penalizing vendors and distributors, basically what they are doing is silencing the press at a time when freedom of expression is critical in Kenya."

The Kenya Union of Journalists has announced that it plans to go to court to block the law.