23 August 2007

Kenya: President Rejects Media Bill

Nairobi — The media won a major victory yesterday when President Kibaki rejected a clause in the Media Bill that would have forced editors to reveal their confidential sources.

President Kibaki described the clause as "offensive and a threat to democracy" as he returned the Bill to Parliament to delete the clause.

In returning the Bill to the House, the President sided with the tradition of media freedom in Kenya and rejected the wishes of some of his main political backers, including several Cabinet ministers who had voted in favour of the clause on the floor of the House.

The offending clause, introduced by Ol Kalau MP Muriuki Karue, would have removed the protection enjoyed by the media against being forced to reveal confidential sources in courts of law.

The clause reads: "When a story includes unnamed parties who are not disclosed and the same becomes the subject of a legal tussle as to who is meant, then the editor shall be obligated to disclose the identity of the party or parties referred to."

President Kibaki, who received the Bill from attorney general Amos Wako yesterday, sent it back to Parliament with instructions that the clause be deleted.

He said it was ambiguous and likely to cause problems in its interpretation because the expression "unnamed parties" as used in the clause had not been qualified or restricted.

"The meaning ... can be construed to include subjects of a story as well as sources of information. This could act as a great inhibition of Press freedom and undermine the democratic strides we have made as a nation," the President said.

After the Bill is taken back to Parliament, MPs can either delete the clause or reject the President's proposal if 65 per cent (or 145 MPs) vote against it.

Mr Karue introduced the offending clause late into the debate on the floor of the House.

Clause to be deleted

In a statement, the Presidential Press Services said the President had written to the Speaker of the National Assembly, Mr Francis ole Kaparo, giving reasons for his refusal to assent to the Bill. He also advised that clause be deleted because it was "offending".

Section 46(3) and 4 of the Kenyan Constitution gives the President powers to refuse to assent to any Bill.

This means that Parliament will only deal with the mentioned clause and not any other part of the Bill because Parliamentary standing orders do not allow opening of debate on a matter that has been concluded.

The Bill had been criticised as retrogressive and meant to water down the democratic gains on the freedom of the media.

Critics argued that it would undermine the profession since it struck the core tenet in the media: Protecting sources of confidential information.

The Media Owners Association first raised the red flag on the Bill and called on the minister for Information and Communications, Mr Mutahi Kagwe, to unconditionally withdraw it from Parliament to facilitate dialogue.

The association and the ministry held several meetings and agreed on key issues to be included in the Bill.

But on the final day of debate, about 29 MPs passed the Bill and the controversial clause. The move was greeted with outrage with the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) vowing to go to court.

But several MPs beat them to the tape when they went to court to question the legality of the Bill. However, the case could not go on since the Bill had not become law.

Journalists from numerous media houses later held protest marches in Nairobi and Nakuru urging the President to reject the Bill. The silent demonstration in Nairobi begun at Uhuru Park's Freedom Corner on Wednesday, August 15.

Yesterday, the LSK praised President Kibaki for refusing to approve the Media Bill.

In a telephone interview with the Nation, LSK chairman Okong'o O'Mogeni said there was an urgent need to review the Standing Orders of Parliament so that MPs are barred from introducing amendments on Bills that have been drafted after consultations with various stakeholders.

This, Mr O'Mogeni said, would ensure that contributions made by key players in the course of drafting the Bills outside Parliament are not disregarded when they are tabled for debate in the House.

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