Friday, December 12, 2008



Standard Commentary

Today, Kenya marks 45 years of independence. But the media and lovers of freedom of expression have little to celebrate. The progress this country has made in encouraging media freedom was dealt a major blow on Wednesday when the Tenth Parliament passed the Kenya Communication (Amendment) Bill.

Mr Poghisio, Communications Minister

With this one act, MPs attacked freedoms earned through blood, sweat, toil and tears of generations of journalists. These are freedoms for which Bedan Mbugua and David Makali were jailed, Wallace Gichere crippled, Gitobu Imanyara and Wahome Mutahi detained, Ngugi wa Thiongo and Salim Lone exiled and many others arrested, tried and jailed or heavily fined.

They are freedoms for which wananchi fought and died in this country’s unforgiving streets.

MPs gave the Internal Security minister the licence to spy on journalists, raid the media and disable or cart away equipment as happened to Standard Group in March 2006. Goons forcefully entered our Nairobi offices, assaulted employees and shut down KTN. The television station was off air for nearly eight hours. They carted away equipment that has never been returned.

As if that was not enough, the day’s newspapers were set on fire at The Standard’s then printing plant on Likoni Road and the press disabled. What is more, to this day, the company has never been told what justification there was for these criminal acts.

Another sticking point is the power the proposed law gives to the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK). This is a regulatory body dominated by Government appointees who, when push comes to shove, will sing to the piper’s tune.

When CCK is given massive powers and the responsibility of policing broadcasting, determining content and programming, the country has cause to fear.

The Bill vests excessive power in the CCK and empowers it to determine the time, manner and type of programmes to be broadcast. This infringes on the right to information and seeks to control the content of broadcasts.

The world over, in democratic nations, a bias towards self-regulation is the trend. Vibrancy in the media allows for credible, responsible voices to emerge and dominate. In Kenya, the Media Council was established last year and has been setting up structures through which media houses and journalists can be made accountable for their actions.

But in the Bill, the views of the media and other stakeholders were ignored. Yet the media were not asking for much.

Is it too much to call for deletion of a clause allowing the Internal Security minister to become a media raider? Or to object to a clause that makes the minister regulator of an independent CCK and the industry?

Is it too much to call for the deletion of a clause that gives offences and dispute regulation to the CCK rather than to the Media Council as outlined in the Media Act enacted last year?


How can it be wrong to ask, when the proposed law provides that no CCK licensee will have controlling interests in another broadcasting company? This essentially bans cross-ownership and will force broadcasters who have interests in other media to sell or assign such control.

Have the minister and Parliament thought this over and considered its repercussions? Will companies that have radio and TV stations — and newspapers to boot — be required to divest and sack employees?

Can Kenya forget so quickly that not so long ago, citizens had to tune in to foreign stations when Government was the sole determinant of what is news?

When MPs passed the Bill, they were not short of excuses: That they were not out to gag the media. That the media had nothing to fear because the Internal Security minister would only act during a State of Emergency that only the President can declare.

This is no consolation. With a dictatorial government in power, this would not be difficult to do. During the Standard raid, the then minister gave a frivolous explanation of undisclosed "national security" concerns.

On Wednesday, the media had few friends in Parliament save for James Rege, the chairman of the relevant parliamentary committee. Previously, they could count on many MPs to come to their defence and that of freedom.

This time round, key voices have been mute.

Where is the Vice-President? Or the Prime Minister? Where are the Attorney-General and other reformers who never tire to say they are agents of change?

It is no doubt that when many of the leaders used to sit to the left of the Speaker in Parliament — in Opposition — they defended the media to the hilt. Now that their fortunes have changed, so have been their views it seems.

It is, therefore, clear that their motivation in defending us must have been elsewhere, not in ensuring media freedoms.

Reportedly, many MPs were not in the House when the ominous Bill was passed. They are no better than those who dealt Press freedom a deadly blow. It has been said, and rightly so, that MPs had resolved to teach the media a lesson because of wide coverage and campaign for them to pay tax on their Sh650,000 allowances. It did not, therefore, matter to them whether the Bill destroyed everything Kenya has achieved on media freedom. The MPs were on a revenge mission.

This is unfortunate because the media serve the public good and if that hurts a clique out to benefit at the expense of the people of Kenya, so be it.


To MPs, we have but one message: One day, you will rue the shameless decision you made on Wednesday.

Going down memory lane may give you a clearer picture: In 1982, Constitutional Affairs Minister Charles Njonjo was instrumental in enacting the constitutional amendment that made Kenya a one-party State by law. Before the year was out, he had been thrown out of the party.

All is not lost. Though MPs failed to do their duty to Kenya and posterity, the Bill is not yet law. It awaits President Kibaki’s assent. And it is to him the media and all those who believe in freedom of the Press now turn.

Mr President, you must say ‘No’ to this Bill as you did last year over the Media Bill. You returned it to the House arguing that a clause requiring disclosure of news sources "was ambiguous and likely to cause problems in interpretation. It would also inhibit freedom of the Press and undermine democracy".

Eventually, Parliament heeded your advise and the Bill became the Media Act without the offending clauses.

Mr President, you have had an illustrious political career spanning close to 50 years. Your administration, while not perfect, has been credited with freedoms that have not been enjoyed in Kenya before.

We ask you to cap that with another ‘No’ for gagging of the media and a vote for Press freedom. Without faith in the media’s ability to act responsibly and in the public interest, we endanger social progress and open the door to future repression.