To Gag, or to Gag: Kenya’s New Media Laws

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On  31 October  2013 Kenya’s National Assembly passed amendments to Kenya’s media law (The Kenya Information and Communications act Amendment Bill of 2013) that threatens to overhaul the regulation of Kenyan media through creation a government appointed tribunal.

The tribunal envisioned will have power to lay massive financial sanctions for all manner of offences to individual journalists and the media houses that they work for breaches of a code of conduct. The tribunal will also have authority of de-registering journalists, as well as capping the amount of foreign advertising a media house can receive.

Up to this point, complaints against media conduct were largely addressed through the Media Council of Kenya, a body owned and run by the media, as a means of self regulation. For better or for worse, this seemed to have been the status quo that had been reached during a period of liberalization and reform, that eventually saw fall of the 40 year rule of the Kenya African National Union, is going out the window.

It could be argued, even as a Kenyan journalist stands trial for crimes against humanity based on the way he used his platform on the Kalenjin language radios station KASS FM at the Hague and how vitriolic and partisan Kenyan media can get in the intensity of covering political matters, that some kind of rationalisation of the media regulations was long overdue. However with the likely assent of the bill containing these amendments, Kenya’s government will have pretty much created a mechanism through which they can bully and intimidate the press in the country to back off anything that they do not want exposed.

Now though Kenya is often lauded as some kind of beacon to press freedom in the region, and to some extent on the continent, the threat of such legislation has never been that far away. The previous NARC regime, for example among other things authorized a commando raid on a leading national newspaper then “deported” the alleged leaders of that raid in really dodgy circumstances.

Nonetheless given the media’s wall to wall coverage Kenya’s Defence Forces mishandled the response to the Westgate attacks, could the passing of such legislation at this time be seen as some kind of ‘punitive action?’ Could this be tied to, similar legislation passed as anti-terrorism, security measures in the region? Could this be a step in a series of legislations aimed at ridding the statutes of those nasty liberties and freedoms that get in the way of keeping the nation safe from agressors?
On the flip side, lost in this furore are provisions that all television and radio stations must allot 45% of the programming to local programming, which personally I feel is a big incentive for local writers and producers.

Ordinarily the tendency of TV stations in particular was to just hand over large chunks of their day, or night to rebroadcasting the signal of some random 24hr news channel and calling it a day. However with an angry nanny of state threatening dire consequences if the actual content gets too ‘sensitive,’ definitely it will not be nearly as revolutionary or as creative (and likely entertaining) as the drafters of the law may like.

As it is the Kenya’s President now has the choice to consider both consenting to and making its radical proposals law, or vetoing the bill and sending it back to Kenya’s parliament for amendment.

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