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Several journalists and civil society activists in Kenya were arrested last week while protesting the passage of a new communications bill that would give the authorities sweeping powers, reports the Media Institute (MI).

The morning crew for Kiss FM radio station, co-anchors Larry Asego and Mzee Jalang'o, and Kenya's top female presenter, Caroline Mutoko, were arrested as they demonstrated against the bill, as well as the high cost of food and the refusal of MPs to pay taxes, on 12 December at Independence Day celebrations in Nairobi.

Former Transparency International (Kenya) director Mwalimu Mati and many other civil society activists wearing black t-shirts were also arrested and locked up at various police stations in Nairobi.

MI, the Kenya Editors Guild (KEG) and the Journalists Association of Kenya condemned the arrests as a return to dictatorship and a violation of fundamental liberties, calling it "ironic" when the country was celebrating 45 years of independence from the British.

The Kenya Communications (Amendment) Bill 2008 was passed on 10 December despite months of behind-the-scenes consultations between government officials, politicians and industry stakeholders. The bill now goes to President Mwai Kibaki, who has two weeks to decide whether it should be signed into law. IFEX members are preparing a joint letter to send to Kibaki.

According to MI, the bill will empower the Minister for Internal Security to take over media houses and seize equipment on grounds of state security - without referring to any other authority.

Meanwhile, the Information and Communications Minister also has powers to search and seize broadcast equipment, in addition to the right to intercept and disclose telephone calls, emails and letters, says MI.

The amendments also grant the Information Minister sweeping powers to control what can be broadcast, when and in what form. The Minister will also appoint the government-dominated Communication Commission, which is charged with licensing broadcasters and ensuring the broadcasts are of "good taste".

Among other provisions, penalties for press offences - fines and jail time - have also increased, suggesting "a discriminatory and vindictive attitude towards the media," MI says.

"This bill is unacceptable in a country that professes to be a democracy, as it literally takes away the fundamental freedom of expression and violates sections of the constitution that guarantee the same," says MI director David Makali.

Analysts believe that MPs passed the bill in retaliation against media criticism that MPs allowances should be taxed. Kenya's MPs are among the highest paid in the world. According to MI, some MPs have launched a scathing attack on the media, angered by the all-out campaign against the bill, and vowed to ensure the bill becomes law.

MI says that further demonstrations are planned to pressure President Mwai Kibaki to reject the bill.

Visit these links:
- MI:
- MI on protests:
- Reporters Without Borders letter to Kibaki:
- IFEX Kenya page:
(17 December 2008)

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