A banner tied to the gates of Parliament protests a media bill under review. (CPJ/Tom Rhodes)
A banner tied to the gates of Parliament protests a media bill under review. (CPJ/Tom Rhodes)

Kenya’s press takes to the streets against bill

“Mr. President, you gagged us!” said a banner tied to the gates of Parliament today. Kenya’s Editors Guild and the Kenya Correspondents’ Association organized peaceful demonstrations across the country to protest a media bill currently under parliamentary review. Protests were held in every county in the country, according to William Janak, chairman of the correspondents’ association, including roughly 80 to 100 protesters in the port-city of Mombasa, 100 in the central city of Kisumu, and 400 in the capital, Nairobi.

The Kenya Information and Communications Amendment Bill (KICA) returned to Parliament today with presidential amendments after an October 31 version was vetoed by President Uhuru Kenyatta. Given the draconian provisions still present in the current draft, the Kenyan media fraternity came out in full force to protest. Even Mediamax, a media house owned by the president, urged its reporters through an email circular to attend the demonstrations. The Standard Media Group, home of the independent daily Standard and TV network KTN, provided bus transportation and T-shirts for its staff to protest. “This is the first step in literally gagging the media,” TV Continental Reporter Pamela Nabeea told me while marching. “If we don’t react now, we will forever be silenced.”

Marching down streets normally clogged with traffic, their mouths taped shut to symbolize censorship, Nairobi protesters handed over a petition listing the Fourth Estate’s concerns to the president’s office and Parliament. Activist and award-winning photographer Boniface Mwangi questioned why the government wanted to institute a government media regulator when a self-regulatory body, the Media Council, is already in place and functioning. “I have seen no complaints over the council, none whatsoever. We have the Media Council to regulate us and that is enough because we are responsible, unlike some politicians, who incite people to engage in war.”

Originally passed in record time by Parliament on October 31, the bill would remove the self-regulating media body and replace it with a government-controlled ombudsman and introduce hefty fines and stringent advertising and programming regulations. Hopes of reform under a presidential veto were quashed last week after Kenyatta made small amendments to the original draft but ignored the majority of concerns raised by the media, said David Ohito, deputy director of the Editors’ Guild. “Passed the way it is, it will amount to state control.” In the bill’s current form, for instance, a government tribunal can fine journalists $5,500 and media companies around $230,000 if the tribunal finds them guilty of breaching a government dictated code of conduct. “When you consider the average salary of a journalist is $300 per month, you can imagine how such a fine could affect reporting,” he told me.

It would appear the protests and consultations by the Editors’ Guild and Correspondents’ Association, among others, may bear fruit. Later this afternoon, MPs suspended discussion on the bill to allow them to review a compromise that lawmakers had reached with players in the media industry, according to news reports. The House Committee on Energy, Communication, and Information has been in consultation with media executives and has agreed to allow the independent Media Council to handle issues of ethics and leave the government tribunal in charge of such matters as frequency allocations and other infrastructure matters, Victor Bwire, deputy director of the Media Council said. If a two-thirds majority attends Parliament tomorrow and votes for the recommended changes, protesters will be able to remove their symbolic gags and return to covering the news.