In ‘Draconian’ Bill, a Room to Improve Kenyan Media

A newspaper vendor sells newspapers carrying headlines commenting a new media bill on Nov. 1, 2013 in Nairobi. [Source: AFP/SIMON MAINA]

A newspaper vendor sells newspapers carrying headlines commenting a new media bill on Nov. 1, 2013 in Nairobi. [Source: AFP/SIMON MAINA]

On Thursday evening, 28 lawmakers at Kenya’s parliament sat at the chambers of the National Assembly to vote for a bill that would change how journalism is practiced in the country. But those 28 lawmakers needed the votes of at least 22 of their colleagues to pass amendments to the Kenya Information and Communications Bill.

“This is a controversial and good law but the members are not here,” Majority Leader Aden Duale said, according to the Daily Nation. “This House is more full when passing other bills.” Then, 32 more lawmakers came. Speaker Justin Muturi called for the vote, and the lawmakers all said “yay” to approve the bill with no opposition lawmaker present.

After a few minutes, the news of the amendment of the media bill — some calling it “draconian” — was met with an uproar in both the press and the public. Kenya’s parliament had in effect passed a bill that would erode much of the existing media freedom in the country that was gradually established over the last two decades.

The bill called for the formation of the Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal, which will have sweeping powers to fine individual journalists and media houses, freeze their accounts, and bar journalists from practicing altogether.

But in those early evening hours, the reaction and reflection, much of it on social media, brought out the alternate dynamics in Kenyan media, and how the conversation was already shifting from one of “oppression” to one of “opportunity.”

For instance, hundreds of Kenyans flocked to Twitter to highlight the contents of the bill, and helped shape the general outlook and consequences arising from ratifying the bill. This was notable, even as the managing editor of the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading daily, wrote an opinion piece on Friday saying that he hadn’t “read the amendments” to the media bill, and was merely reflecting based on “briefings I have received.”

“This quest to independently evaluate and interpret the contents of the bill is indicative of a new, growing trend, of netizens questioning face value reports,” Nanjira Sambuli, a new media strategist with iHub Research in Nairobi, told SAHAN JOURNAL.

Nonetheless, the onerous task facing Kenya’s media following the passing of this bill is how to balance aggressive reporting with responsible journalism. This year, the local media came across major news making events: the presidential elections in March, the Westgate terrorist attack in September, and the ongoing ICC proceedings – which also have become the focus on the international media. In each of the cases, the Kenyan media was blamed for playing the patriotic card and being defanged by nationalistic beliefs. Most often, the media also regurgitated official talking points from press briefings. In fact, some people contend that the foreign media had eclipsed local media in covering all these high profile cases, such as the ICC and the Westgate attack.

“The media’s self-regulation mechanisms had been seen as toothless,” Nanjira says. “A general identity crisis has been plaguing the country’s ‘independent’ media, acknowledged even by some among their ranks.”

Nanjira says she believes that the introduction of the media bill, and the subsequent debate it has created, stands as a “wake up call” for the press. The relationship between the electorate and the country’s fourth estate, she says, “is also on the spotlight, and from here on out, mainstream media will not only have to acknowledge, but also respect Kenya’s rising fifth estate,” —  with social media acting as an alternative outlet to traditional media.

However, it is precisely this kind of free and independent environment that fostered the rise of blogs and social networks in Kenya, a luxury many in the neighboring countries cannot afford.

Besides, traditional media outlets played an important role in the fight for multiparty politics and the clamor for change in Kenya during the 90s. They faced harassment and arrest, and survived the threats of pesky politicos, like the former Internal Security Minister John Michuki, who justified his attack on The Standard newspaper’s offices by saying, “If you rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it.”

The media also endorsed Kenya’s new constitution, which was passed in August 2010. This is the same constitution, whose implementation was hailed as a landmark achievement for Kenya, and whose provisions in the Bill of Rights section clearly contravenes with the newly proposed media bill.

“The fourth estate is there to monitor the government, to make sure that the government is authoritative without being authoritarian,” Joe Kadhi, a media veteran and a Journalism lecturer at the United States International University, told SAHAN JOURNAL.

Instead of muzzling the press, removing a space for self-regulation, and giving the government excessive power over journalistic content, Kadhi says the debate should have tackled a key component facing Kenya’s media landscape: professionalism. “The bill should have paid more attention to ethical principles, rules pertaining to plagiarism, and make it clear that only qualified professionals could work in this field,” Kadhi says. “This would significantly improve journalism standards in the country.”

Haron Mwangi, chief executive officer of the Media Council of Kenya, agrees. Since the establishment of the council by the parliament through the Media Act of 2007, it has been tasked with mediating disputes between the public and the media, promoting freedom of the press, enforcing high journalistic standards, besides ensuring the protection of the rights and privileges of journalists in performing their duties. But if the media bill is to be signed into law by President Uhuru Kenyatta, the council will be rendered inactive.

This, Mwangi says, goes against the painstaking consultations that the council conducted in collaboration with Kenyan legislatures. “There was a great engagement between the public and the parliament,” Mwangi says. “The industry was very involved. However, all the key suggestions made and the gray areas addressed were not taken into consideration.”

These unaddressed gray areas, and the ramifications they carry for the larger media in East Africa is important, given that Kenya is considered a country that has a robust democracy with a very independent media environment. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2011, with the exception of the United States, Kenya was host to more exiled journalists than any other country in the world. In 2012, more journalists fled from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Rwanda to Kenya.

“East Africa looks to Kenya as a model. The introduction of this bill is worrying,” Tom Rhodes, CPJ’s East Africa representative, told SAHAN JOURNAL. “The Kenyan media needs to create a sense of solidarity and a unified spirit to conduct a campaign against this bill.”

Nonetheless, the battle to keep and redeem Kenyan media’s independence will be fought not in a court of law as much as in the court of public opinion. Kenyatta has already vowed that he will ensure that the “new media law conforms to the constitution” before he signs it into law. But his speech next week in Addis Ababa at the African Media Leaders Forum will be interesting to watch, notwithstanding that this year’s theme is “Media and the African Renaissance by 2063.”

“This bill is definitely one of the most shocking developments in Kenya’s political history,” Kadhi concludes. “But the media will come out stronger.”

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