A major battle looms between the Kenya Government and broadcasters over new regulations seeking to take back licenses and vet programmes.
The most significant and potentially controversial change by the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) appears to be a proposal to introduce the so-called one frequency per spot rule.
Its effect will be to force some of the major broadcasters to surrender frequencies already in their possession. “All licensees, except the public broadcaster, shall not be assigned more than one broadcast frequency for radio or television broadcasting” in the same coverage area, according to a draft of the rules seen by the Nation.
The broadcasting industry in Kenya has been attracting new players at a phenomenal rate, creating huge demand for frequencies. The upshot has seen an insatiable demand for the broadcast spectrum that has recently forced the CCK to revoke a number of frequencies, citing hoarding by those allocated.
With competition in the broadcasting industry becoming fiercer by the day, forcing big broadcasting houses to relinquish the frequencies they already own will be a major challenge for the regulators.
Although broadcasters are going to be given as much space as five years to adjust their operations in line with the new regulatory regime, the one frequency per spot rule is bound to face stiff resistance since some of the big broadcast houses have invested millions in infrastructure, their plans based on the multiple frequencies they have been holding.
The draft regulations contain several other radical proposals with respect to use of frequencies. Under the new rules, frequencies assigned to a public broadcaster for use in public broadcasting shall not be transferred to a third party.
By far the most ambitious attempt at shaping broadcasting in Kenya, the new rules basically follow modern trends, with the regulations seeking to determine broadcast content, technology, advertising, ownership and public interest issues.
For instance, new conditions have been introduced to regulate change of ownership and control of a broadcasting company. The draft regulations stipulate that any change in shareholding exceeding 15 per cent of the issued capital of a broadcasting company can only happen with prior consent of the market regulator.
Until now, programme content has been left to self-regulation. Broadcasting content has basically remained in the realm of codes of ethics observed by the Media Council of Kenya and editorial guidelines constructed by individual media houses.
The point of departure in the draft broadcasting regulations are rules on content that appear to be not only too intrusive but also prescriptive. Offensive language, blasphemy and sexual matters presented explicitly will no longer be a matter of codes of practice, but will be offences punishable by the regulator.
New provisions have also been introduced to regulate children programming in a bid to protect the young from harmful effects of television. It will be an offence to conduct an interview with a minor without the consent of the parent or guardian. Perhaps the most prescriptive aspects of the draft regulations are the rules dealing with news reporting.
Observance of standards such as the principle of the right of reply, fairness and even-handed treatment of news, usually left to the integrity and editorial guidelines of individual media houses and the Media Council, will now be prescribed in written law, and breaches punished by the regulator.