MPs must re-think law curtailing media freedom

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NGUNJIRI WAMBUGU

This last week saw the passage of a parliamentary bill that seeks to control Kenya’s media. I get where Kenya’s politicians are coming from with this bill. There is no politician anywhere in the world who would not want to have a tool that enables them to control the kind of media coverage they get; and this bill does that for them in a best case scenario. (That is why even the parliamentary Opposition was generally silent).

Unfortunately these politicians have forgotten that the reason we have so many new faces in this Parliament is because we have a media that is free enough to showcase new ideas from unknown individuals who do not necessarily belong to a ruling elite. They forget that a lot of them beat more established politicians only because Kenya has a media that does not (at least not always) serve the interests of only the powerful.

What I doubt is whether this Parliament has thought of the worst case scenario of such a law, especially after Hon Jamleck Kamau’s additions.

First the mainstream media would most probably become pragmatic (they are in business), adapt to the circumstances, and only cover positively those with the power to harm their interests. This means that no one would ever be able to ‘leak’ a story that can undermine the ‘establishment’; or run ‘rogue’ for strategic political reasons (usually to build a profile as an independent); or become a successful political ‘maverick’ when the system decides to turn on them.

In fact, the media would become mercenaries; destroying those politicians the status quo wants destroyed; no questions asked. They must realize that should the system decide that some of them were not pliant enough, and opt for other candidates; they will have no avenues to use to fight back in four years time, when they have to fight for their political survival again.

Second; our politicians have forgotten the easily accessible but very powerful social media; which they cannot control. #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) have forced CNN to apologize; TD Jakes to explain himself and large corporations to pull back products. #KOT can be lethal, and more so if there is no alternative platform to counter social media allegations, through clarification (or spin). This is the scenario that a ‘compliant’ media creates; where the public will then not trust mainstream media and will turn to the social media for ‘truth’. I doubt many politicians want to have their followers using social media to judge them.

Finally, Parliament has given Kenya’s other two arms of government an opportunity to make them look silly and selfish.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has already indicated what he thinks of the bill and should he actually send it back to Parliament he will have won a powerful public victory over Parliament. On the other hand, if the President signs the bill the media will roll out powerful public activities that will distract the Executive. They will also go to the Judiciary, which really has no option but to declare the bill unconstitutional, leaving e.g. on the faces of Parliament and the Executive.

In each of the above scenarios Parliament is looking at a lose/lose scenario if they proceed this way. They need to step back, and look at this situation again. How do they proceed on this issue in a way that serves the best interests of the ‘common-bigger-picture-Kenya’ for all of us; the Kenya envisioned by the new constitution?

My advice to Parliament; Call the media stakeholders for a candid discussion; define a ‘common-bigger-picture’ each institution can live with; define the structures to get to it, and make this into a new bill for the President to sign. If Parliament does this they will be surprised at how easily they will all agree on a solution that the public can live with.
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On KTN’s ‘Jeff Koinange Live’ (JKL) Bench last Thursday I faced-off against AfriCog’s Gladwell Otieno on the ICC cases. Gladwell believes that Kenya’s cases must proceed to their logical conclusion; I believe they have been overtaken by events and are now complicating Kenya’s capacity to move forward progressively.

Ironically we both agreed that an innocent verdict on Uhuru and Ruto does not help the 2007 PEV victims; and that a guilty verdict will in all likelihood lead to more violence (and more victims) than in 2007/08. So if both sides of this debate agree that all possible outcomes from the ICC cases lead to a lose/lose scenario for Kenya, why can’t we agree that ICC is hurting Kenya!

Maybe it is because not everyone can see beyond the Kenya we have today to a Kenya in maybe; 2053. Maybe if we could ‘see’ that Kenya; where most of us involved in this discussion now will all be 20 years older; this debate would get easier; especially because in that Kenya, neither Uhuru or Ruto will be a factor anymore; whatever their best case scenarios today.

(Wambugu is the Executive Director, Change Associates Trust)

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