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Kenya: Faiths Join Protests Against Curbs on Media Freedom

December 17, 2008

Nairobi - Violent scenes reminiscent of the dark days of President Daniel Moi′s dictatorship have returned to the Kenyan capital after parliament passed a bill which tightens the state′s grip on the broadcast media.

In what may well be one of the worst indictments of President Mwai Kibaki′s commitment to democracy, anti-riot police citing `orders from above′ beat up and arrested journalists and civil rights activists protesting against the new law.

The Kenya Communications (Amendment) Bill 2008 was passed on Thursday and is awaiting presidential assent. In addition to stringent licensing requirements, the bill vests excessive power in the Communications Commission of Kenya, empowering it to determine the time, manner and content of broadcasts.

The bill also allows the internal security minister to switch off stations and seize equipment in case of "public emergency or in the interest of public safety and tranquility."

The bill has been roundly condemned by the media fraternity, civil society, the faiths, and foreign missions, which have urged President Kibaki not to assent to it.

Observers say legislators passed the bill to hit back at the media which has in recent months spearheaded campaigns to have Members of Parliament (MPs) pay tax on their hefty allowances.

The Kenyan media, one of the most robust in Africa, have relentlessly championed reform, exposed corruption and fought the culture of impunity in officialdom. Media have also been critical of the performance of President Kibaki, whose landslide election in 2002 was touted as Kenya′s second liberation. His bitterly disputed re-election last year plunged the country into its worst ever crisis.

The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) asked the president not to sign the communications bill, advising him instead to refer it to parliament for further debate.

"We take cognizance of the fact that the bill portrays the media as the problem in Kenya whereas everyone knows it is our politicians whose recklessness and selfishness is tearing our nation apart. What Kenyans would like to see is parliamentarians respect freedom of speech of other actors," NCCK said in a statement on Sunday.

The organisation, which brings together Protestant and evangelical churches, further called on politicians to focus on resolving the problems facing Kenyans such as high food and energy prices, inflation and poverty.

The new law has also been rejected by the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM).

On his part Cardinal John Njue, chairman of the Kenya Episcopal Conference, said he advocated for responsible media. At a church fundraiser attended by President Kibaki on Sunday, the cardinal was quoted by the Presidential Press Service as calling for regulations to ensure media houses acted responsibly and to restrain them from churning out programmes that made the society lose its identity and dignity.

Information permanent secretary Bitange Ndemo said the government had no intention of gagging the media, but the new law "will regulate the electronic media by promoting ethical standards and enhancing our moral values."

Kenya′s media are already regulated by the state through licensing, laws on libel and protection of state secrets. The country also has a statutory media council to enforce professionalism.

President Kibaki has not commented on the ongoing saga. But Prime Minister Raila Odinga said he would pass to the president a petition against the bill handed to him by media owners on Monday.

For more information contact:
Catholic Information Service for Africa
Phone: .

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