On Sunday night, what the Kenyan media and public had dreaded for a long time became reality. From his State House resort in Mombasa, President Mwai Kibaki announced that he had assented to the controversial Communications (Amendment) Bill 2008, which all stakeholders, except a small clique of politicians, agree is draconian and retrogressive.
One of the clauses in the law allows the information minister, through the Communications Commission, to dictate to media houses what content to broadcast and when to broadcast it. In brief, this commission will set the agenda for the media houses.
And should a media house defy these regulations, the minister has the right to confiscate its equipments and close down the media house indefinitely.
In justifying his action, President Kibaki said the Bill would enable him achieve his 10 per cent economic growth target by 2012 through regulation of e-commerce, a core component his Vision 2013.
But his silence on clauses that directly relate to broadcast and its regulation was as conspicuous as it was suspect. First of all, to empower a minister (many times a non-professional), to dictate content for media houses is weird, and does aggress the basic principles of a free press.
In his statement, Mr Kibaki said he was assenting to the Bill in order to safeguard “culture, moral values and nationhood”. Another cover up---considering that neither the Bill nor Kibaki define what these are.
The relationship between the State and the media in Kenya (like most African countries) has been strained one. In the controversial 2007 presidential election, it was the media that was at the forefront in exposing most of the electoral malpractices. It is this exposure, coupled with international pressure that forced President Kibaki to share power with ODM’s Raila Odinga. Kibaki’s latest action could be interpreted as pay-back for the media, for basically labeling him an electoral fraudster.
The media could also have become a victim of the power play in Kenya. It is obvious that when this Bill was passed in Parliament, most of the ODM MPs were away in their constituencies running in the grassroots elections. Prime Minister Raila Odinga made it clear that he would not back it, and just last week, received a petition from the Kenyan Editors Guild, which he promised to deliver to the President.
Kibaki's insistence on signing the Bill, could, therefore, have been to "show" Raila where power lies.
But the danger in this Bill is what impact it could have in the region. In Uganda, already independent media houses, like ours, have been the target of State repression and intimidation.
Just last week, three of our journalists were quizzed over a story thought to be “prejudicial to state security”. If we had a law, like the one Kibaki has passed, probably, we would have been shut down and our equipment taken.
That is why, all media houses in this region and the public must come out strongly to condemn the slow, dictatorial path, Mr Kibaki is setting Kenya on.