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Kenyan media face fines, prison terms under proposed media bills

Supporters of Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga look at a newspaper in the Mathare slum in Nairobi, 9 March 2013.
Supporters of Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga look at a newspaper in the Mathare slum in Nairobi, 9 March 2013.

REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Thirty minutes was all it took. On Thursday, 31 October, 60 Members of Parliament debated and then passed the highly contentious Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) Bill, 2013.

According to the International Press Institute (IPI), the new bill puts reporters and news organisations at risk of being penalized for breaking the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism – a document that would be created by a new government-appointed Communications and Multimedia Tribunal. The consequences for breaching the yet-to-be-written Code of Conduct are not trivial. Human Rights Watch reports that journalists could be fined up to 1 million Kenyan Shillings (US $12,000) for their actions, while media houses would have to pay up to 20 million Kenyan Shillings (US $235,000).

What's even more troubling is that penalties could be imposed in response to anonymous complaints. According to Tom Rhodes, East Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), this means that if a reporter writes a story criticizing an official "…that same official could file an anonymous complaint to an impartial government tribunal who could then blacklist and fine the journalist into silence."

The bill further permits authorities to seize the accreditations, properties and assets of media houses and journalists to pay fines – meaning that this imposed “silence” could be permanent. Many media houses would not be able to afford the cost of an individual fine with the totality of their annual revenue. David Ohito, the deputy chairman of Kenya's Editors' Guild, told Rhodes, "Given that Kenyan media houses make on average 1.2 million Kenyan shillings per year [approximately US $14,000], all would go under [with this bill]."

But fines would not be the only threat to the economic sustainability of media outlets under the new law. BBC News reports that under The Information and Communications Bill, at least 45% of radio and television content, advertising included, must be produced locally.

There is hope, however. On 6 November, Reporters Without Borders noted that the minister of information and communication announced the creation of a "contact group", including all media sector representatives, to discuss the bill's constitutionality. Furthermore, on 12 November, IPI cited reports that said President Uhuru Kenyatta will not sign the current bill into law, noting that it contradicts constitutional protections for press freedom.

Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch cautions that, even without the support of the president, Parliament would be able to force the bill through with a two-thirds majority.

To complicate matters further, another restrictive media bill is currently in the works. The Media Council Bill would allow the government to ban any media content it considers to be "prejudicial to public or national interest," according to Human Rights Watch.

"The bill lacks a clear definition of what constitutes national or public interest, which means that this provision could be used to censor material without any checks on the council's discretion," Human Rights Watch notes in its 12 November press release.

Reporters Without Borders echoed this sentiment, noting that "security must not be used as a pretext for gagging the media."

According to Amnesty International, both bills have been scheduled for debate in Parliament this week, although no specific dates have been reported.

What other IFEX members are saying
  • Kenya: President must reject the Information and Communications Bill

    "The amendments that were tabled by the Committee on Energy, Information and Communication violate Kenya’s constitutional guarantees for media freedom and fly in the face of hard won liberty in the country."

  • World’s press urges Kenyan president to halt punitive media law

    As a member of the Pan-African Parliament, Kenya is signatory to the Midrand Declaration on Press Freedom in Africa which draws on a variety of African protocols, articles and declarations, including Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights and WAN-IFRA’s Declaration of Table Mountain, which calls for greater press freedom in Africa. WAN-IFRA called on the President to ensure Kenya’s laws "fully respect the letter and spirit of the Midrand Declaration and its other international obligations to freedom of expression."

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