Nairobi — Members of the National Assembly on Thursday approved a bill aimed at curtailing media freedom in the country, with fines running into as much as Sh20 million for offenders.
The Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) Bill 2013 also know as the Media Council Bill will see individual journalists and media houses violating the code of conduct face dire consequences--in what is likely to spark outcry from the media industry and civil society organizations.
The Bill which now awaits Presidential Assent for it to become law will also see the creation of a powerful Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal to address media complaints as opposed to the current situation where grievances are addressed through the Media Council of Kenya.
A Journalist found to have violated any information-related law will be liable to pay a fine of over Sh 1 million with the affected media house paying 20 million shillings.
The tribunal has sweeping powers to even attach property of individual journalists and media houses.
It can also "make any supplementary or subsidiary orders or directions that it may consider necessary.
The bill was passed a week after Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo summoned Standard Group CEO Sam Shollei and KTN investigative journalists Mohammed Ali and Allan for questioning over an expose they documented from CCTV footage obtained following the Westgate Shopping mall terror attack that claimed over 70 lives.
The order was however reversed by President Uhuru Kenyatta, who later defended Kimaiyo, saying he was not out to oppress the media.
The body has the mandate to adjudicate on complaints by any person in stories carried in the newspapers, the conduct of journalists, and other matters that are likely to hinder the practice of journalism in the country.
The tribunal can also "recommend the suspension or deregister the journalist involved."
Under the new law, local media houses will be required to have at least 45 percent of local content in their programming during the day.
Media houses will also have 18 months to terminate advertising contracts from foreign firms to meet the prescribed quota.
"A broadcaster licensed to distribute Radio and TV programme services shall make sure that 45 per cent of programmes and advertisements broadcast on TV and radio on any given day comprise local content," said Rarieda MP Nicholas Gumbo.
The Bill also makes it mandatory for all SIM cards to be registered with service providers, facing hefty fines for failing to ensure their clients are fully registered.
Mobile service providers were on the spot last month when the government demanded to know why attackers of the Westgate Shopping mall were allowed to use unregistered SIM cards, which made it difficult for security forces to track them down.
But even as the MPs passed the new law, they denied the Cabinet Secretary for Information the power to pick members of the Communications Authority of Kenya, and instead declared that it is their preserve.
Members of the Communications Authority will now be vetted by Parliament, if President Kenyatta approves the bill.
Industry players such as the Media Owners Association have raised concerns in the manner in which the members were selected.
Although the selection panel would be drawn from media owners, journalism associations, editors, journalism schools as well as several professional bodies, the Cabinet Secretary would have the final say on who chairs or even sits on the council.
MPs praised the enactment of the bill saying it will streamline media operations in the country.