Kenya seeks Draconian laws to fine and punish its press corps

Silencing the press got serious after local media reported that Army troops looted the Westgate Mall after the Al Shabab massacre. 

Ben Curtis/AP/File
In this Sept. 24, 2013 file photo, a Kenyan soldier runs through a corridor on an upper floor, shortly before an explosion was heard, at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

Among African nations, Kenya is especially proud of a robust and relatively free and open media -- which is why a new proposal allowing select officials to sanction or fine journalists has provoked a stream of outrage here.

In the capital Nairobi, media groups speak of “fury” over an “assault” on a free press, and one major newspaper’s front page editorial called the new legislation “a return to the dark days.”

Critics say the measures will threaten press freedom because journalists and editors afraid of annoying the government and facing huge fines will pull back from publishing contentious stories about government corruption or malfeasance. They say the move could roll-back hard-earned "fifth estate" clout that has seen the press in Kenya often hold leaders to account in the place of strong legislative opposition.

The new measures appear to be motivated by press criticism of the government after the Westgate Mall massacre, and especially by reporting about the Army looting of Westgate in the aftermath of the Sept. 21 attack. The looting was captured on security and other cameras and then seen around the world. 

The media law itself was introduced in the parliament late at night by a handful of politicians who seek to scrap media self-regulation and replace it with a government-controlled tribunal.

The law, which still requires approval from President Uhuru Kenyatta, is the latest attempt to silence government critics.

“The media industry has fought hard to secure space for self-regulation and, with other reform-minded Kenyans, opened up space for citizens to enjoy civil liberties,” said William Oloo Janak, chair of the Kenyan Correspondents’ Association. “The tribunal will have powers to suspend or bar journalists from practicing, a decision that could be based on flimsy grounds or designed to frustrate investigative reporting.”

Only 60 members of Kenya’s 349-seat National Assembly, its lower legislative house, were present for the media law debate late in the evening Oct. 31. The new tribunal could fine media organizations up to $250,000 a month and hit individual journalists with fines up to $12,000, both of which are significant sums in Kenya.

“The law will have serious implications on the operations of media houses and individual journalists,” predicts David Ohito, a sub-editor at Kenya’s Daily Nation and vice-chair of the country’s Editors’ Guild. “It has the ability to shut down even some of the largest media houses here. I am not sure which media house would survive if it is slapped with 10 fines,” Mr. Ohito adds. 

A little over a decade ago, during the tenure of former President Daniel arap Moi, the country’s press was little more than the mouthpiece of the leader and the ruling party, as is the case in many African nations today. But in the last 10 years, there has been a surge in professionalism, range, quality and bite in the media.

Recent television investigations into the chaos of security services’ response to the terror attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping center were particularly praised by viewers. But they drew the ire of the authorities, with David Kimaiyo, the chief of police, threatening to arrest journalists over what he called “inciting” reporting.

It is not clear if the new law was a response to MP's feeling that they were being targeted by the media.

Activists campaigning for better governance in Kenya say they feel increasingly intimidated when they raise their voices against government policy.

Wainaina Ndung’u, executive director of the Center for Conflict and Policy, claims that the new law, the Kenya Information and Communication Bill, 2013, allows the government to curtail freedom and enjoyment of the right to access information.

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