Saturday, December 6, 2008



December 5 2008

The stage on Friday appeared set for a showdown between the Government and MPs over proposals to control broadcast media content.

While the Ministry of Information and Communication caved in and pledged to remove the clause granting the Executive unprecedented power to paralyse radio and television stations by seizing equipment, the Government insisted that the one seeking to control content will remain.

But the chairman of the parliamentary committee on Energy and Communications, Mr James Rege, said MPs will not support the Bill without amendments to contentious clauses that threaten to curtail media freedom.

At the same time, media owners said that despite five high-level meetings with government officials in the last two weeks, their concerns about the contentious clauses had been brushed aside.

“Each time, we felt that we were not taken seriously,” said Mr. Wachira Waruru, the managing director of Royal Media Services which operates Citizen radio and television stations.

He was speaking at a press conference at the Serena Hotel also attended by Mr Paul Wanyaga, the managing director of the Standard Group, Mr Linus Gitahi, CEO of the Nation Media Group, and other media house executives.

Mr Rege said his committee suspects the Bill is being brought before Parliament in bad faith and is aimed at interfering with independence of media houses.

“My committee will stop at nothing to ensure that nobody interfered with the media,” he said at Kendu Bay showground where he attended an ODM pre-election meeting of aspirants.

Mr Rege said his committee will ensure that Kenyans’ interests and their democratic rights were preserved.

Press freedom

“Parliament cannot allow itself to pass bad laws that would erode the democratic gains so far made in the country,” he said.

In Nairobi, the Permanent Secretary for Information and Communications, Dr Bitange Ndemo, announced that section 88 of the Bill was deleted during a high-level meeting on Thursday between Information minister Samuel Poghisio, Constitutional Affairs minister Martha Karua and some MPs.

The section would have allowed the Internal Security minister to declare an emergency unilaterally and then enter and search broadcasting stations.

“On the declaration of any public emergency,” the deleted section read, “the Minister for the time being responsible for internal security may take temporary possession of any telecommunication apparatus or any radio communication station or apparatus.”

But controversial clauses, which allow for the tight control of media programming and the arbitrary denial of licences and frequencies, remain.

For example, the Bill would allow the Information and Communications minister, together with the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK), to deny broadcast licences whenever any “conditions as may be prescribed” go unfulfilled.

The minister would also be able to control the “time and manner of programmes,” a job normally reserved for experienced journalists and professional editors.

Editors have objected to the word “manner,” which they say is too vague and could be used to introduce restrictions on journalistic freedom.Media Council

According to Media Council member Joseph Odindo, who is also the Managing Editor of the Nation Media Group, MPs in addition to journalists would be affected.

“MPs may not realise this, but by passing this, they will be tying a noose around their necks,” he said. “They will be giving the Commission powers to control what broadcasting stations air and do not air. Politicians will be the first victims during crisis.”

Speaking on behalf of the Media Owners Association yesterday, Mr Gitahi urged the Government to defer the Bill to allow further consultations.

He said the Bill, in its current form, would compromise press freedom by taking away various powers from media houses and the self-regulating Media Council of Kenya. It would instead give those powers to Government ministers and the CCK.

“We have created an independent media council; the Government should not repeat what the council is already doing,” Mr Gitahi said. Dr Ndemo defended the Bill against these concerns, saying the Government has no intention of gagging the media.