Court bans newspaper from writing about businessman

New York, June 7, 2002—The Kenyan High Court has ordered copies of the Weekly Citizen off the streets following a complaint from a businessman.

High Court judge Andrew Hayanga issued a temporary injunction forbidding the managing editor of Weekly Citizen, a tabloid known for salacious reporting, and its vendors from continuing to distribute the June 3-9 issue until a libel suit filed by businessman Sunil Behal is heard and resolved, according to Kenyan news reports.

“While we recognize the right to seek legal redress in civil courts,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, “censorship is especially unfitting in a democratic society.”

Legal assault
This censorship is the latest assault on Kenya’s media and comes in the wake of punitive legislation passed by Parliament last month—but not yet signed into law by President Daniel arap Moi—that increases the bond publishers must pay to the Registrar of Societies, a government agency that registers all companies within the country.

The legislation raises the bond from 10,000 shillings (US$129) to 1 million shillings (US$12,863). The government claims that this increase is necessary in order to offset potential losses incurred in libel or defamation suits.

Media owners, however, say this is rubbish: Monies awarded in libel and defamation damages have never been paid out of the Registrar’s office but rather out of the libel insurance that all newspapers are required to own.

Several small newspapers will be unable to pay the higher bond outlined in the legislation and could be forced to shut down, say several Kenyan press reports. Publishers argue that the bond is part of a legal harassment campaign against the Kenyan press.
In addition, according to the bill, distributors and vendors who sell publications that have not paid the bond could be fined as much as 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.

The legislation reflects a disturbing new trend in Kenyan courts of awarding crippling libel and defamation damages to plaintiffs, a tactic that could silence publications through bankruptcy.