NAIROBI, Jan 2 – President Mwai Kibaki on Friday signed into law a contentious communication legislation that critics argued would restrict press freedom, ignoring protests from journalists and rights activists.
Kibaki said a touchy clause that gives the "government power to restrict media operations during a state of emergency" was not contained in the just-assented Communications Amendment Bill, 2008, but instead a previous Bill passed in 1998.
"Therefore, by refusing to assent to this Bill, I will not have addressed this concern of the media. Accordingly, I urge the stakeholders to address this issue separately," he said in a statement released by his press unit.
Parliament passed the Bill on December 10, touching off a blizzard of protests from activists and journalists who complained that authorities would clamp down on the media. International press monitors weighed in, urging the President to return the Bill to parliament.
Several journalists and activists were arrested in a series of demonstration that ensued, but Information and Communication Minister Samuel Poghisio said the law was long overdue.
Mr Poghisio said the new law would help control television stations’ propensity to air lewd programs disregarding the broadcast time, age and the audience.
Mr Kibaki praised the new law for introducing regulations in money transfer through mobile phones, such as M-PESA, and said it would ensure that the electronic media promoted and safeguard Kenya’s culture, moral values and nationhood.
"In view of the above, and in consideration of the fact that this Bill is of great benefit to the country, I have assented to the Bill," the president said.
Supporters of the new law said it would open up e-commerce for the country, which has been delayed for years because the press complained that its media-regulation clause should be detached from the Bill.
While pledging to protect the gains made in press freedom, Mr Kibaki said: "I however wish to appeal to the media to recognise that freedom must go hand in hand with responsibility."
"While press freedom is a cardinal pillar of democracy, this is a right that carries with it special duties and responsibilities. Press freedom must therefore be counterbalanced with other freedoms and must at all times take into account the overriding interest and the safety of Kenyans," he said.
In 2006, suspected security forces raided Kenya Television Network, drawing sharp protests. A year earlier First Lady Lucy Kibaki stormed the Nation Media Group’s offices to complain about alleged unfair coverage.
The new law is one of the issues that have strained ties between Mr Kibaki’s Party of National Unity and Prime Minister’s Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement party – two partners in a coalition government that was formed to end deadly political violence that followed the December 2007 polls.