Saturday, January 3, 2009

Public anger greets Kibaki’s signature on draconian law

Lawyers, religious leaders, journalists and politicians fear that with the stroke of a pen, the President might have driven the country back to the dark era of suppressed freedom. Graphic/EDWARD MWASI 

By BERNARD NAMUNANE

The media industry, lawyers, the clergy, some politicians and the public on Saturday responded with anger and disbelief to President Kibaki’s decision to assent to a Bill that critics say will strip the media of its independence and plunge the country back to the dark era of restricted freedom of expression.

They were unanimous that the Kenya Communications (Amendment) Act was a bad law, not just for the media but also for Kenyans who are increasingly embracing mobile telephony and other electronic means to communicate with each other and do business, and called for its swift review and deletion of the offensive clauses.

The law, they argued, threatened to reverse the gains Kenyans have made in agitating for freedom of the media and expression and warned that it could cause Kenya to be listed among the countries whose leaders were intolerant to criticism.

On Saturday, the Media Owners Association (MOA) said the President had taken away the public’s right to be informed of important issues, including those the government of the day would not like to be exposed.

The President signed into law the controversial Bill on Friday in spite of his being petitioned by the media industry, some politicians, lawyers, religious leaders and the public to return it to Parliament for review.

In trying to explain why he had assented to the Bill, the President stated that it was an important piece of law in promoting e-commerce.

The President said that the clause (Section 88) which gave the government powers to invade media houses was not part of the amendments and that it has to be addressed separately.

However, the Kenya Editors’ Guild described the President’s explanation as evasive and one that fell short of the concerns that were raised by the media industry in a petition that was handed over to Prime Minister Raila Odinga to forward to the President.

In addition to raiding media houses and seizing broadcast equipment, the new law empowers the Communications Commission of Kenya and the Information minister to determine the content of television programmes to be watched by Kenyans, what they will read in the newspapers and listen to on radio.

The law also gives the minister powers to withdraw the broadcast licence should any station fail to meet the conditions.

For the ordinary Kenyan, the new law allows Postal Corporation of Kenya staff to open their letters and have them pay fines should the letters contain what are deemed to be offensive details.

The law also makes illegal installation of fancy ring tones to mobile phones, customisation of features to individual needs and change of facial appearances. A penalty of two years or a cash fine of Sh300,000 would be slapped on people judged to have a habit of sending abusive messages.

Following the signing of the Bill, sources said that the President and PM Odinga were on a collision course because the former was opposed to the new law.

Even as late as four days ago, Mr Odinga was stating that the President would not sign the contentious Bill. A meeting the Sunday Nation learnt had been arranged to take place in Nairobi next week over the Bill between the President and the PM has since been overtaken by events.

On Saturday, ODM secretary general Anyang Nyong’o said the party will meet next week to issue a comprehensive statement over the development. Lands minister James Orengo, who said that ODM would go to court should the President sign the Bill, could not be reached for comment.

Others who criticised President Kibaki’s decision to assent to the bill were nominated MPs Rachel Shebesh and Musikari Kombo, Karachuonyo MP James Rege , and former lawmakers Paul Muite (Kabete) and Reuben Ndolo.

Former Law Society of Kenya chairman Tom Ojienda advised the media industry to challenge the constitutionality of the new law in court.

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