KENYAN PARLIAMENT FIGHTS TO TAME MEDIA
BY HARRY MISIKO
The Fourth Estate. That is the watchdog that some members of the executive and legislative arms of the Kenyan government believe should never operate freely.
Like a thief who prays for the guard dog to suffer a lockjaw and stop barking, they want journalists’ mouths stitched and hands tied.
Reason? The media has refused to sit back and watch them plunder public resources and entrench their greed and selfishness.
“Who would want a bunch of ‘busybodies’ who go telling citizens about failures of their leaders to publish and broadcast whatever they want?” their reasoning goes. “Who would want people who block leaders from increasing their salaries whenever and however they want?”
Media and journalists are a pain in these politicians’ necks. And the leaders are not sitting pretty. They are hitting back. With vim, verve and armory. They are hell-bent on gaining control over what is broadcast, punishing and creating fear among scribes and media houses.
Last year, for instance, the Parliament passed two new media laws that were widely condemned by progressives as “draconian, retrogressive and unconstitutional”.
The Tribunal has the power to impose fines of up to Ksh20 million ($235,000) and Sh500,000 ($6,000) on media houses and journalists who breach provisions of the law, respectively. It will also recommend de-registration of journalists and make any order on freedom of expression, including restricting its enjoyment whenever it deems necessary.
These provisions, which are contrary to regional and international standards, have created fear among scribes and media owners— forcing some into self-censorship.
Immediately after President Uhuru Kenyatta signed the bill into law last December, reporters’ and correspondents’ complaints about their stories being ‘killed’ by editors increased sharply.
Top editors’ and media owners’ fear of repercussions against investigative reports has been cited as the major factor.
As if that was not enough, Parliament passed The Media Council Act despite opposition from media owners, among other stakeholders. The law gives Parliament the powers to prescribe and amend the code of conduct for journalists whenever it wishes.
While the changes may be necessary, putting this fragile task of regulating journalists in the hands of politicians exposes it to abuse. Kenyan leaders have a long history of punishing the media whenever it exposes their failures and transgressions— including staging raids on publishing houses.
Media owners and journalists have contested some provisions of the two laws in court, saying they are against the letter and the spirit of the new Constitution adopted in 2010.
As one of the affected journalists, I’m hopeful that the court will rule in our favor. I would love to see Kenya retain its reputation as one of the African countries with a freer and robust media.
But until the verdict, I continue to count the number of stories that are being ‘killed’ by editors at the altar of self-censorship, as well as writers’ tales of wasted effort.