On the day the United Nations-African Union talks on the postponement of the ICC cases against the President and his deputy started in New York, at home the Jubilee-dominated Parliament pushed through easily the most regressive media law in Kenya’s history.

The Kenya Information and Communication Bill created an all-powerful Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal, which will listen to complaints against journalists, media houses and other enterprises driven by Information and Communications technology (websites, blogs, mobile sites).

This effectively killed off the self-regulatory independent body that does the same work today —The Media Council.

The tribunal can impose a fine of up to Sh20 million on a media house, and Sh1 million on an individual considered to have violated either that law or the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism.

The law also required that least 45 per cent of the programmes and advertisements they broadcast comprise local content.

All this is incomprehensible, because part of the Kenya’s government and its African Union’s allies’ argument for the ICC to either drop or bring home the cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto has been that with the 2005 Constitution, Kenya entrenched democracy like few African countries have.

That new Constitution gave the Judiciary unparalled independence; and had a Bill of Rights rivalled by few in the world that gave the Kenya media new teeth.

In one dramatic swoop, Parliament wrote away the rights of the press. Twenty-four hours later, Kenya is hardly the democracy that was asking the UN for the ICC deferral. It is a frightening place, and it is valid to ask: What is there to prevent Parliament from similarly sweeping away the independence of the Judiciary tomorrow?

In addition, the government-controlled tribunal is a short-cut around the Constitution and a crude reintroduction of censorship. A media house can be slapped with a fine of Sh20 million on five occasions in a month, which is Sh100 million.

CLOSE IN LESS THAN TEN MINUTES

Because it is a politically controlled body, the Tribunal can do that once every month. Even the richest media house in Kenya would close in less than 10 months.

Nearly all FM stations could close in two months. Since the tribunal can choose to slap the fines on media that hold a different view from the government, effectively all non-ruling party media can be shut down in a few weeks by just slapping them with the outrageous fines.

Individual journalists are liable to be fined up to Sh1 million.

Because the definition of journalists in Kenya is now so broad and includes those who work online, this could have a devastating effect on the lively Kenyan blogosphere. There is no Kenyan blogger who can afford to or would be willing to pay a Sh1 million fine to keep his or her blog alive. Here, Parliament is dangerously close to taking Kenya back to the Stone Age instead.

Before MPs passed the law, the media bent over backwards. It met all government leaders and MPs who could meet them.

Their discussions were cordial, and the media left hopeful that common ground had been reached. The final Bill threw away all these compromises. On what issue then can the government be trusted?

Fortunately, one of the industry discussions was with President Kenyatta. He is exactly where former President Mwai Kibaki was six years ago when a media Bill that was not half as bad as the Kenya Information and Communication Bill came before him.

Mr Kibaki did the right thing; he returned the Bill back to Parliament to get rid of the obnoxious provisions.

President Kenyatta can do as well as Mr Kibaki, better than him, or worse. He gave his word that he would do better. If he is to believed on the many other local and international commitments he has made, he needs to prove that he is a leader of his word.

He should not sign this Bill into law.

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Via Daily Nation – nation.co.ke

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