AMI: Kenya’s new Media Bill casts a dark cloud for press freedom on the continent

Kenya, considered to be a beacon of democracy and home to one of the most progressive and vibrant media on the continent, has suffered important reversals with the signing into law of the Kenya Information and Communication (Amendment) Bill 2013.

This is a very bad signal for the rest of the continent at a time when efforts are being made by key stakeholders to ensure that strong, independent and responsible media play their role in the construction of a new African narrative.

The forging of a partnership between the state and independent media built on trust, reciprocity and mutual understanding is crucial, and indeed this was clearly emphasized during last month’s flagship event of the African Media Initiative (AMI) – the African Media Leaders Forum (AMLF) — held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In fact, this new law signed by President Uhuru Kenyatta and which severely curtails media freedom while at the same time restricting journalistic scrutiny, comes just a few weeks after the Deputy President William Ruto publicly stated at the closing ceremony of the AMLF that “press freedom and freedom of expression are cardinal measures of good governance”.

“The media in Africa is financially extremely fragile and many of them struggle on a daily basis to break even, and when heavy fines are slapped on them, this has the direct effect of either driving out of business the less resilient ones or ultimately enforcing a culture of self-censorship.” said Amadou Mahtar Ba, CEO of AMI. Ba was referring to the hefty fines to be levied on media houses (about US$230,000) and individual journalists (about US$5,800) if deemed to have violated the law.

Another source of concern lies in the establishment of a Communication and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal (CMAT), which will have the power to impose fines on media houses and journalists, recommend de-reregistration of journalists and make any order on freedom of expression. Executive overview of the CMAT in terms of nominations and appointments of its members is believed to compromise the Tribunal’s independence and impartiality. Additionally, the Tribunal is decidedly in conflict with the legal mandate of the current Media Council of Kenya’s (MCK) Complaints Committee, which, so far, has served as an effective and inexpensive dispute resolution platform guided by the cardinal principle of putting public interest first.

‘What we need on the continent are strong, professional, financially sustainable and independent media, which are not only ready to take to task those in powerful positions, but also to take themselves to task. For that to happen, we need a conducive and progressive environment that helps the media fulfil that task,” said Ba, adding that, “what we see coming from Kenya is not at all reassuring”.

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