Attorney general proposes restrictive media bill

New York, April 25, 2002—CPJ is alarmed that Kenyan attorney general Amos Wako has reintroduced a repressive media bill in Parliament.

The contentious Statute Law (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill would increase 100-fold the bond publishers must pay to insure against losses they may incur from libel or defamation suits. Currently, publishers must pay 10,000 shillings (US$129) to the Registrar of Societies. Under the new legislation, this bond would rise to 1 million shillings (US$12,863).

Publishers argue that the proposed bond is prohibitive and is part of a campaign of systematic legal harassment against the Kenyan press.

In fact, the bill comes as President Daniel arap Moi, members of his family, and other powerful politicians have brought—and won—several crippling libel and defamation suits against newspapers and bookstores. In 2001, the judiciary awarded record damages to plaintiffs, effectively silencing critical publications by bankrupting them.

Publishers that fail to post the new bond face fines totaling 1 million shillings, a three-year jail sentence, or both. Recidivists risk five years in prison and a permanent ban from the publishing industry. Several small newspapers would be unable to pay the higher bonds proposed by the bill and would be forced to shut down, according to local press reports.

In addition, distributors and vendors who sell publications that have not paid the bond could be fined up to 20,000 shillings (US$257), imprisoned for up to six months, or both. Publishers fear that these provisions would intimidate vendors into refusing to sell certain publications.

“This bill is a blatant attempt by the Kenyan government to silence critical journalism via financial and bureaucratic harassment,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We urge Attorney General Wako to withdraw this unjust legislation immediately.”

The bill has already had two readings in Parliament, where it met with stiff opposition. If the law passes during the third reading, which has not yet been scheduled, it will go to President Moi for his signature.

Reviving old threats
During the last two years, the attorney general has introduced several versions of the bill to Parliament in efforts to clamp down on Kenya’s vocal independent media and on the so-called gutter press, increasingly popular scandal sheets that often print stories about the sexual exploits of prominent Kenyans.

Each time, Wako has withdrawn the legislation after fierce criticism from lawmakers and the press.

At the beginning of the year, Wako indicated that he might scrap the current legislation for good if an independent organization was launched to monitor the media. Soon after, local journalists announced the creation of the self-regulating Media Council. The mandate of the council, which is scheduled to begin operating in May, would include enforcing the Kenya Union of Journalists’ Code of Conduct.

Wako responded by reintroducing his bill, arguing that any system designed to regulate the press required “legal backing.”