THE National Assembly yesterday passed legislation so that media houses can be fined Sh20 million and journalists banned from practicing if they violated the code of conduct for journalism.
The Kenya Information Communication (Amendment) Bill passed its third reading yesterday without amendments. If President Uhuru Kenyatta signs the Bill, it will become law. However the President can choose to returned any bill to the National Assembly for amendments.
The new bill creates a Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal which will take over the work of the former Complaints Commission of the Media Council.
The new tribunal will be appointed by the Information Cabinet Secretary, following advice from a five person selection panel that he will also appoint.
The selection panel will consist of five members from the Information ministry, the Media Council, telecommunications service providers organization of Kenya, the Courier Industry Association of Kenya and the Communications Authority. Direct control of the Tribunal will effectively give government a stranglehold over the media.
Any person "aggrieved by any publication or conduct of a journalist or media enterprise" will be able to complain orally or in writing to the Tribunal.
The Tribunal will have the power to order a media house to pay a fine of up to Sh20 million and individual journalists to personally pay fines of up to one million shillings.
The Tribunal will also be able to "recommend the suspension or removal from the register of the journalist involved," which would effectively ban that journalist from practicing his profession.
Clause 102E(i) of the Bill also gives the Tribunal potentially unlimited powers by allowing it to "make any supplementary or ancillary orders or directions that it may consider necessary for carrying into effect orders or directives made."
The Tribunal is not bound by 'the rules of evidence' that apply in Kenyan courts and can make any ruling as it sees fit. The Tribunal can also order smaller punishments such as publishing apologies and making a public reprimand.
Last night the Kenya Editors Guild said the amendments will reverse the gains Kenyans had made on freedom of the media."We reject the laws passed today as they are an affront to media freedom," said the statement by Macharia Gaitho and his deputy David Ohito.
Civil society groups said the amendments would take Kenya back to the dark days when government controlled information. Twelve NGOs under the Centre for Law and Research International (Clarion) said the amendments contravened the constitutional guarantee of a free media.
Chairman Maurice Odhiambo challenged Kenyans not to sit by as MPs mutilated the constitution for selfish reasons. Kenya Human Rights Commission deputy executive director Davis Malombe not to assent to the Bill.
Media Council of Kenya chief executive officer Haroun Mwangi expressed concerns about the published Bill, stating it still allowed the Communications Commission of Kenya to administer broadcast content, formulate media standards and regulate compliance. Clause 5(b)4 of the Bill also allows for censorship of the press during emergency. He said regulation of content should be under the Media Council.
Some MPs have already promised to lobby the President not to sign the "draconian" law although it is not clear why they did not oppose the changes when it was debated by the house.
"The media plays a critical central role in the society and should not be muzzled but such hefty penalties are meant to deter media houses and journalist who do not obey the code of conduct," said William Cheptumo, a member of the Legal Affairs committee.
Wajir North MP Ibrahim Saney supported the Bill saying that it will regulate the media industry. "The Bill is good but the government should not misuse the provision to harass the media and journalist in their role to inform the society," he said.
Government has been angered by what it considered to be unfair coverage of the Westgate terrorist attack. Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo initially summoned KTN journalists to record statements about why they showed CCTV footage of soldiers leaving Nakumatt with bulging shopping bags. He later rescinded the order and the KDF court-martialled three soldiers for theft.