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Media law sparks outrage

NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan 3 – Kenya’s media fraternity on Saturday led a chorus of outrage over President Mwai Kibaki’s decision to assent a law that imposes new restrictions on media operations.

A day after the Kenya Communications Act became law, the Media Owners Association (MOA) pressed for repealing of the sections that directly impact on press operations.

“With this Bill, the President has taken away mwananchi’s (citizens) right to know, right to see and hear any issues that the government may not want exposed,” MOA chairman Linus Gitahi said.

Mr Gitahi said the law gave the government powers to seize not only telecommunications equipment, but also yank radio and televisions stations from the air at will.

In addition, the law authorises the state-funded telecommunication regulator Communication Commission of Kenya (CCK), to control programming from content to scheduling.

“The law also gives sweeping powers to the minister of Internal Security to seize broadcasting equipment as and when he feels public tranquillity is threatened,” Mr Gitahi told a news conference.

“It is wrong for an individual to determine what public tranquillity is,” he said.

The MOA called on Parliament to introduce a new amendment that would undo the setback that threatens to unravel gains made since multiparty democracy was introduced in the country in 1992.

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“What we are saying is that we want to work with all Kenyans of goodwill to ensure that the democratic gains made in this country are not eroded by a stroke of the pen,” Gitahi said, adding that the group will meet on Tuesday to plan the way forward.

President Kibaki, who signed the Bill on Friday, said a touchy clause that gives the “government power to restrict media operations during a state of emergency” was not contained in the new Communications Amendment Bill (2008) but instead a 1998 law.

Last year, Parliament passed the Bill touching off a blizzard of protests among activists and journalists who complained that authorities would clamp down on the media. International press monitors weighed in, urging President Kibaki to return the Bill to Parliament.

Several journalists and activists were arrested in a series of demonstrations that ensued, but Information and Communication Minister Samuel Poghisio said the Bill was long overdue.

The U.S Embassy had issued a statement lambasting the Bill as giving "excessive power to the government over the media."

Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s own Orange Democratic Party (ODM), which sits in the governing coalition alongside President Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU), had threatened to take the matter to the courts if the President appended his signature to the draconian proposal.

Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said in a statement that the "reactionary and repressive" Bill was "a major step backwards."

"We do not understand President Kibaki’s decision, which will seriously undermine civil liberties in his country," it said.

"The new legislation provides for heavy fines and prison sentences for press offences. It also gives the government, above all the information and interior ministries, authority over the issuing of broadcast licenses and the production and content of news programmes."

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Over the past decade, Kenya has developed some of Africa’s liveliest media, which have exposed some of the country’s biggest scandals, such as the Goldenberg affair, when the country lost hundreds of millions of dollars from the dubious export of gold and diamonds.

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