A new Kenyan draft law set for enactment in the country by late August could be detrimental to the security of press freedom under a state of emergency, reported Kenyan news publication Standard Digital.
The bill, which proposes state control of news reports during emergencies, would give the government power to regulate broadcasts, control content surrounding controversial issues, monitor media compliance with standards and oversee the conduct and discipline of journalists — functions currently performed by the Media Council of Kenya.
If the Kenya Information and Communications Act is passed, the Standard said, the current Media Council of Kenya would be outlawed and the Communications Authority of Kenya would usurp the aforementioned powers, with the Cabinet Secretary appointing new members of the council. This is a move current members of the Media Council find troublesome.
“The Cabinet Secretary wants to centralize power and he can even reject appointees and nominees of the Media Council,” said Haroun Mwangi, chief executive officer and secretary to the Media Council of Kenya. “How then can the council remain independent of government?”
Within the act is also a clause barring political officials and state officers from acquiring broadcasting licenses, although it is not clear what would happen to those officers who already hold licenses.
Just two months ago, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who took office in April of this year, assured media stakeholders that he is committed to maintaining freedom of the press—a contentious topic in a country that has, for some years, struggled with the balance between media and the state.
“I assure the media fraternity in the country that my Government will support the media to be free, fair and responsible in conducting their business as provided for by our Constitution as well as international conventions to which Kenya is a signatory,” the president said on May 2. “Indeed, Kenya has set an example for Africa in terms of non- interference in media freedom. We will uphold this proud reputation. We will be at the forefront in fighting any form of gagging the media, harassing of journalists, constraining media space and violation of media freedom that are fundamental to good governance.”
But the emerging democracy, which is ranked fourth on the Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer, is having trouble believing the president’s words.
“What you hear in public as Executive promises to defend Press freedom are not exactly what you get,” Okech Kendo wrote in an editorial for the Star. “Doublespeak is the name of the game.”
Questions regarding what would constitute an official emergency, resulting in possible media shutdowns or live broadcast delays, have emerged among members of the press who have asked that the term be limited to attacks on the country or revolution against the government.
“What will happen if the media starts spot lighting corruption scandals in high levels of government?” asked former Imenti Central parliament member Gitobu Imanyara, who said the move is an “affront to the media freedom aimed at scuttling the democratic space.”
Media stakeholders became even more worried after the bill was published on the Commission for Implementation of the Constitution’s website last week, revealing that a guarantee for self-regulation of the press has been removed from the initial draft, making the bill unable to meet constitutional standards for freedom of expression and the media.
But Kendo said the deletion of this section of the bill is far from his biggest concern.The “greatest threat to the public’s right to know,” he wrote, “is information laundering.”
By placing bans on reporting or omitting information to “protect” the public, the regime and the law invoke an unpredictable, underhanded method of repression that Kendo refers to as a “massage parlour” that “‘massages' editorial gatekeeprs to ‘manage’ information,” rather than “unleashing raw violence” like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni.
But the relationship between the state and the media has been difficult for much of Kenya’s recent history. A Center for International Media Assistance profile of Kenya insists that widespread intimidation of the media is prevalent—calling the situation “volatile.”
According to the profile, the state continues to suppress freedom with a framework of oppressive media laws and continued enactment of what journalists are calling “draconian media laws” under the pretext of media regulation and national security.
Kenyan journalists last year feared “hard times” ahead, the report said, adding that politicians were apparently conspiring against the media.
“These concerns proved well-founded,” the profile reads. “[Then] President [Mwai] Kibaki approved changes to the media law that broadened the scope of official power to interfere with the media, under the guise of protecting national security.”
This new media bill demonstrates exactly how “well-founded” last year’s media fears are continuing to be.
According to the Reporters Without Borders 2013 World Press Freedom Index—a global report that measures a variety of criteria ranging from legislation to violence against journalism—Kenya sits at number 71 in freedom of the press.
The country has bounced up and down 10 to 20 spots in the last five years, always remaining near the middle in the ranks of 179 countries that are bookended, this year, by Finland, the Netherlands and Norway as the best three countries for press freedom and Eritrea—located in the Horn of Arica—North Korea and Turkmenistan as the worst.
The draft law must still undertake several revisions prior to going before the president for approval. Kenyan media affiliates fear that a House recess on August 2 will cause a rushed decision in the parliament.