Tuesday, December 16, 2008



By Otuma Ongalo

The huge gains made in Press freedom and civil liberties have been shaken, thanks to the draconian media Bill.

Members of Parliament united in a vengeful mission to cripple the media. They are bitter that we spearheaded a call to compel them to pay taxes on their allowances.
Because of this ‘sin’, they want the power of the pen to be replaced with the power of the gun.

It is surprising that any leader can contemplate or even support a move that aims at raiding media houses, for whatever reasons. Memories of the midnight raid on the Standard Group remain vivid. Hooded men with no legal mandate shocked the world with their heinous activities.

Next time they strike, they will not need to hide their faces: They will be protected by law if President Kibaki, disregarding the stain to his legacy, assents to the Bill.

At stake is the citizens’ right to information as guaranteed by our the Constitution. If MPs succeed in their mission, the media will no longer be able to tell wananchi what they need to know in the manner they need to know and at time they need to know. Professional judgment will be taken over by State officials at the Communication Commission, under the Information minister’s guidance. They will, for instance, declare that some individuals cannot be featured in TV talk shows because they are "a threat to national security". Alternatively, they can declare that talk shows — or any other programme — should be scrapped or can only be featured between 1am and 3.30am. This may appear farfetched but it is part of the bitter reality of the contentious Bill.

Threat to media
The Media Council is already in place to ensure the media regulates itself. It is, thus, surprising legislators want non-media practitioners to run the sector. Engineers, lawyers and doctors — among others — have proved that professionals can regulate themselves. Why, then, can’t media practitioners be trusted?

The threat to vandalise, rob and shut down media houses perceived to be errant is meant to instil fear so that journalists shy off from reporting sensitive issues, such as major scandals. National security is a term that defies definition. It has always been invoked when no rational explanation is forthcoming to justify controversial decisions. Many dictators have killed and maimed in the name of safeguarding national security. When former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha sent writer Ken Saro Wiwa and other Ogoni activists to the gallows, he did so in the name of safeguarding national security.

Kenya is being steered towards the dark days when members of the Fourth Estate lived under perpetual fear of upsetting the status quo. This must not happen.