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Parliament launches vicious attack on media, president urged not to sign proposed media bill into law

(Media Institute/IFEX) - On 16 December 2008, Kenya's Parliament launched a scathing attack on the media and vowed to ensure it is "tamed." One member after another tore into the media, apparently angered by the all-out campaign against a controversial Bill recently passed by Parliament that seeks to give the government power to control media content. The onslaught was started by Bura MP Danson Mungatana who rose to complain about being labelled as Enemy No.1 of the media for supporting the Bill that seeks to control the content, manner and scheduling of radio and TV programmes.

The Kenya Communications Amendments Bill 2008, passed by a mere 25 MPs (below the required quorum of 30 of the 222 members), has far reaching implications for press freedom in the country. It sets up a Communications Commission whose members are appointed by the Minister for Information to licence broadcast media and draw up a programming code which all media will be required to comply with. It also empowers the minister to issue directives "of a general nature" on media content and operations on top of the existing law which allows the government to take over stations and impound broadcasting equipment in the interest of public safety and tranquility or "any public emergency", at the minister's sole discretion.

The media had called for amendments to the law, which has been abused in the past to raid media houses and impose a ban on live broadcasting at the beginning of 2008. However, all their proposals have been ignored by the MPs in retaliation against media criticism of their refusal to pay taxes.

On 12 December, several journalists and human rights activists were arrested as they staged a protest during celebrations to mark Kenya's 45th Independence Anniversary. The protest, which marred the celebrations, prompted Prime Minister Raila Odinga to call a meeting with media owners on 15 December, at which he was presented a memorandum urging President Mwai Kibaki not to assent to the law. However, on 16 December, when Odinga attempted to make the pitch for press freedom in Parliament, he encountered hostility from MPs who have vowed to ensure the draconian Bill becomes law.

Odinga and President Kibaki are partners in a coalition government formed under international mediation after Kenya's disputed presidential election triggered violence early in 2008. The MPs speaking in support of the Bill were mainly from the Kibaki-led side of the coalition, and included Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Justice Minister Martha Karua, who accused the Prime Minister of "playing to the gallery". Speaker Kenneth Marende said he would rule on the complaints raised against the media at an "opportune time" as foot-thumping members vowed to do everything in their power to reign in the press.

Meanwhile the media has dug in for what is turning out to be a hard-fought battle. They formed a broad committee to coordinate their actions and responses, which immediately released a memorandum of reasons for the media's rejection of the new law. They are also seeking an audience with the President. The President has 14 days (expiring on 22 December) within which to sign the Bill into law or let it lapse, in which case the proposal would become void.

For further information on the 12 December arrests, see:

Updates alert on the proposed media bill:

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