Wednesday, December 17, 2008



By David Ochami

Debate in Parliament was emotive as the contentious amendment Bill seeking to retain a draconian law aimed at suppressing the media caused a sharp split.

Members who spoke in support of the Kenya Communication (Amendment) Bill, 2008, were applauded as MPs faulted the media on their reportage, claiming the Press was out to muzzle the august House.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Nairobi Metropolitan Minister Mutula Kilonzo, Medical Services Minister Anyang’ Nyong’o and four MPs stood with the Press as it came under fresh assault.To drive his point home, Raila revisited the ban on live telecast early this year and claimed that unnamed Government officials summoned media owners and forced them to halt the announcement of presidential results using the Kenya Communications Act.

The PM invited the wrath of MPs when he disclosed that the Kenya Communications of (Amendment) Bill was drawn before the Grand Coalition Government. "This Bill did not originate from the coalition Government. It had been passed by the time the coalition Cabinet was formed," he said, igniting catcalls and points of order from Cabinet colleagues Uhuru Kenyatta and Martha Karua, among others.

Ms Karua, the Justice minister, declared that all ministers, regardless of party, are bound by the principle of collective responsibility in supporting the Bill.

Raila stood his ground and disclosed that following protests by the media, he tried to persuade Information Minister Samuel Poghisio to defer the Bill’s publication in vain.

Call for caution
As legislators celebrated last week’s passing of the draconian law against the media and called for additional measures, Raila, Mutula Dr Simiyu Eseli (Kimilili, Ford-Kenya) and Nyong’o called for caution against Press censorship.

Assistant Minister Danson Mungatana opened the tirade against them when he accused the media of plotting to bring down Parliament and influence President Kibaki not to assent to the Bill. He asked Speaker Kenneth Marende to censure the Press over the coverage of the passing of the Bill. "The President must sign that Bill," Mr Mungatana thundered, and accused MPs opposed to the Bill of "playing to the gallery".

He claimed that besides attempting to gag Parliament, the Press was trying to incite public disaffection over MPs’ refusal to pay taxes on their hefty allowances.
"There is a serious campaign against this Parliament by the local media and internationally over the Kenya Communications (Amendment) Bill," Mungatana said.
He claimed that the Press was inciting international hatred against the Tenth Parliament.

Assistant Minister David Musila accused US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger and his German counterpart Walter Lindner of "meddling in the affairs of this country and Parliament for questioning why we passed that Bill". He asked Mr Marende "to stop them (envoys) from meddling in the affairs of the nation" and restrain the media for "purporting to fight for freedom".

But Raila cautioned MPs against reintroducing "the dark days of dictatorship" and said Parliament, however aggrieved, cannot wish away the pivotal role of a free Press in a democracy. Raila said although Parliament is the supreme authority of the land, respect for "the Fourth Estate is equally important and must be respected. We have come a long way from the day of dictatorship when most people could not dare to address a Press conference, when torture was the order of the day".

He said any law that threatened Press freedom was an assault on democracy "that we fought so hard to bring. Any attempt to gag the Press needs to be resisted strongly".

Seeking publicity
But Uhuru, who is also a Deputy Prime Minister, accused the PM and opponents of the Bill of "seeking publicity and pursuing personal political agendas" and asked Marende to censure the media and "restore the rule of law in this country and supremacy of Parliament in this land".

Eseli said although the media have been censured for fanning violence early this year, reforming the Press must not be counterproductive.
"What shall we do with the media? As we try to reform the media, let us not try and gag them because they are also our mouthpiece," he said.

Nyong’o urged members to isolate emotions from the process of reforming the media and debate over their taxation. He said Parliament’s supremacy must not be turned into a cliche to evade legitimate censure of the legislature. He said: "Let us isolate this problem from other issues and deal with it (Bill) rather than hang the Press and hang ourselves. "After we have restored democracy, there should be no attempt to travel one step backwards," he said.

Mutula said although Parliament is the supreme legislative authority, it cannot remain indifferent to public sensitivity and international concerns. He said Parliament’s authority on making laws "is subject to audit by the country and international community".

Assistant Minister Bifwoli Wakoli asked the Speaker to take action against MPs who absented themselves from Parliament during crucial debate "taking beer as we make laws only to vilify us outside the House".

Marende will make a ruling "at the earliest opportune time" after asking the media and politicians to exercise restraint on the matter.

Ndaragwa MP Jeremiah Kioni censured legislators distancing themselves from the Bill, saying all members were responsible.

Assistant Minister Kabando wa Kabando called for the serialisation of the draconian law so that more Kenyans could critique it.