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IPI concerned about new media bill that undermines media independence

(IPI/IFEX) - The following is a 31 May 2007 IPI letter to Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki:

H.E. Mwai Kibaki
President of Kenya
P.O Box 30510
Nairobi, Kenya
Fax: +254 2 250 264

Vienna, 31 May 2007

Your Excellency,

The International Press Institute (IPI), the global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists in over 120 countries, is deeply concerned by the Kenyan government's decision to introduce a Bill undermining the media's independence in Kenya.

Titled the Media Bill 2007, the Bill establishes a statutory, but self-regulatory, press council known as the Media Council of Kenya (MCK). The Bill also provides for a complaints committee that has the power to remove a journalist from a registered list or deny a journalist accreditation.

Regarding composition, the MCK will have 15 members drawn from journalists, media owners, the Kenyan Law Society and Trade Unions, among others. The chair is appointed by the Minister of Information and Communications and may come from outside the media profession.

Aside from these provisions, the Bill provides for a statutory code of ethics, and a defence in law for journalists seeking to protect the confidentiality of their sources.

The Bill has raised concerns among the media and other groups about the government's true intentions. Paul Muite, the chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Administration of Justice has said that the Bill is an attempt to ". . . control and gag the media."

While IPI welcomes the protection of sources proposed in the Bill, it believes that the best means of regulating the media is through the creation of voluntary and self-regulatory mechanisms. Indeed, if the media is to fulfill its democratic role of scrutinising those in power, it must be at arm's length from all political institutions.

In the present case, the minister's involvement in choosing the MCK's members, as well as the chair, undermines this principle and raises the possibility of a politically biased council beholden to the Minister of Information and Communication.

Moreover, the fact that the MCK is created by legislation will inevitably damage the presumption of independence that the media need to perform their role within Kenyan society.

On the question of the complaints committee, IPI is extremely worried by the decision to create a registration list, which in effect amounts to a licensing system for journalists via the back door. The registration of journalists is open to abuse and may create self-censorship among the profession.
IPI also believes that media councils and related bodies exist for the purpose of self-regulation and the improvement of best practices among media organisations; they should not be created with the intention of punishing journalists.

Despite this, the proposed complaints committee is directly aimed at those members of the media profession who are most vulnerable to government pressure, namely individual editors and journalists. This reinforces IPI's view that the Bill is partly designed to seek retribution for the media's work.

Such a view is supported when the current Kenyan media environment is examined. Over recent years, the media have faced increasing pressure from the Kenyan government and there have been a number of arrests and prosecutions of journalists.

The decision to finally introduce the Media Bill, therefore, seems to arise from a desire to avoid the negative publicity of police raids and the criminal prosecutions of journalists.

However, the passage of the Media Bill 2007 will only heighten tensions between government and media and encourage the view among the international community that the Bill's intention is to silence media who publish or broadcast uncomfortable and embarrassing stories.

With the above in mind, IPI calls on the government to halt the Bill's passage and to work closely with the media and professional organisations to create a system of independent and voluntary self-regulating mechanisms that maintain the media at arm's length from the government.

We thank you for your attention.

Yours sincerely,
Johann P. Fritz Director

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