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CRN and Kenya affiliate voice concern over proposed legislation, creation of Media Council

(CRN/IFEX) - On 6 August 2007, the "Standard" newspaper reported that, four days earlier, the Kenyan Parliament authorised the creation of the Media Council of Kenya, a quasi-governmental organisation to regulate and monitor the media in Kenya. After weeks of debate, Parliament approved the controversial legislation and sent it to the president for signing.

The purpose of the bill is to create a media council with statutory powers to oversee issues of interest between the private media and the government. Patrick Gathara, general secretary of the Association of East African Cartoonists (KATUNI), reports that journalists and free speech advocates have had difficulty obtaining copies of the finalised bill. The draft version, posted on http://www.kenyalaw.org , the website of The National Council for Law Reporting, has caused individuals and groups to call on President Mwai Kibaki to send the legislation back to Parliament.

Citing a relevant 26 July order paper for Parliament, Cartoonists Rights Network, International (CRNI) and the CRNI-affiliated KATUNI object to these elements of the legislation:

a. Defining "journalist" as an individual who "holds a diploma or a degree in mass communication from a recognized institution of higher learning and is recognised as such by the Council,"

b. Proposing that only Council-approved journalists be allowed to practice journalism in Kenya, and

c. Requiring journalists to register with the Council for accreditation.

Many cartoonists, photojournalists and correspondents in Kenya do not have college educations. Therefore, they would be disqualified as journalists in Kenya. They would not have access to the protections their better-educated colleagues would enjoy. Furthermore, the legislation seems to say that the Media Council will decide which institutions of higher learning meet its standards. CRNI and KATUNI observe that one bill is simultaneously inviting suits from institutions of higher learning and a corps of professionals who cannot afford to attend those institutions.

Four decades of excellence on the part of Kenyan reporters and political cartoonists is being questioned by legislation that invites court challenges due to passages on academic imprimaturs and bureaucratic access to the names of sources.

The "Standard" article says that "The Media Council was originally proposed to stave off any the threat of government regulation." Interest groups, including KATUNI and the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), now believe the proposed Council will be used by government to suppress press freedom and allow individuals who are subjects of stories to insist that editors reveal sources without involving judges or the courts.

The Kenya Broadcasting Corporation reports that the LSK will challenge the disclosure of sources as unconstitutional. Easy access to the names of sources and whistle blowers will, LSK said, kill journalism in Kenya.

The chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Constitution and Legal Affairs, Paul Muite, told the "Standard", "This bill would be a death blow to journalism in Kenya." He said it would "erode all democratic gains."

"Nobody likes media scrutiny, even I. But they are a necessary evil that holds people to account. We cannot have genuine democracy unless media are allowed to operate freely,'' Muite said.

CRN and KATUNI ask that President Kabaki send the bill back to Parliament to undergo thorough and public vetting.

CRNI has written to Minister Mutahi Kagwe MP, minister for information and communication, and Attorney General Amos Wako about this legislation. CRNI encourages all free expression advocates to do likewise.

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