Sitting late into the night on Wednesday, MPs voted out the bill on NGOs, that if passed would have placed them under de facto government management and, notably, restrict their ability to receive funds from overseas donors – a key source of cash for many rights groups and anti-corruption watchdogs.
Kenyan media said it was the first major defeat in Parliament for the ruling coalition party of President Uhuru Kenyatta since his election in March, noting the bill was rejected by 83 to 73 votes, with eight MPs abstaining.
“The motion is lost and cannot be read a second time,” speaker Justin Muturi said, according to Kenya’s Standard newspaper.
United Nations human rights experts urged Kenya’s government earlier this week to reject the NGO bill – as well as another bill tightening laws on media freedoms – that they warned would severely rein in democratic freedoms in the country.
UN expert Frank La Rue said in a statement that the failed bill was “evidence of a growing trend in Africa and elsewhere, whereby governments are trying to exert more control over independent groups using so-called NGO laws.”
More than 20 international rights groups including Save the Children and Oxfam sent an open letter to the government last month ahead of the parliamentary debate, warning they feared the bill could do “more harm than good”.
In October, lawmakers pushed through a hugely controversial media bill that would see journalists and media outlets policed by a special quasi-government body and slapped with huge fines or potentially even forced out of business if they violate a code of conduct.
The bill provoked a furious reaction from Kenya’s vibrant independent media, with front pages declaring that democracy and free speech were under attack.
Kenyatta, who has promised not to “gag” journalists, last month used his veto power and sent the bill back to Parliament.