Thu, Aug 16, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Hundreds of Kenyan journalists protest bill


Hundreds of journalists wearing black gags over their mouths marched silently through Kenya's capital yesterday to protest a proposed law that would allow courts to compel reporters to reveal their sources.

Several radio stations also declined to run their morning news broadcasts, playing music or talk shows instead, to protest a bill that an international media rights watchdog has described as "disastrous" for democracy.

Mitch Odero, a journalist for 30 years in Kenya, said this was the media's first mass protest.

"This has never happened in my lifetime," said Odero, who once served as editor of the Standard, Kenya's oldest newspaper.

He was among more than 300 journalists who set off from Uhuru Park, where protesters seeking multiparty democracy would gather in the early 1990s.

Protesters carried signs that said: "Protect our sources, say no to media bill."

Attorney General Amos Wako said on Tuesday that he would advise President Mwai Kibaki not to sign the proposal and refer the bill back to the National Assembly "for reconsideration."

"As [journalists] who take it upon ourselves to fight for the rights of others, we simply cannot afford to sit down and do nothing while our own rights and a basic tenet of our profession is at stake," a statement signed by a committee of Kenyan journalists said.

The bill proposes an independent media council to arbitrate complaints against the press, and its decisions would be legally binding. But just before the National Assembly's final vote more than a week ago, a lawmaker added a clause giving courts powers to force journalists to reveal their sources or unnamed individuals quoted in a story.

The lawmaker argued journalists often defame prominent people by not naming them in controversial stories but describing them enough to be identified.

Four opposition lawmakers are challenging the proposed law in court.

Kibaki has 14 days to sign the bill into law when Wako presents it to him or return it to parliament with an explanation for his decision not to sign it.

Organizers plan to march to Wako's office to petition him, as the government's chief legal adviser, to advise Kibaki not to sign the proposed law.

The secretary-general of the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders, Robert Menard, warned the proposed law would have "disastrous consequences" for Kenyan democracy.

Menard said forcing journalists to reveal sources would mean "a key component of the democratic checks and balances is destroyed."

Kenya is ranked as one of the world's most corrupt countries in the Berlin-based Transparency International's annual corruption perceptions survey.

Journalists using anonymous sources have exposed some of the country's biggest scandals, such as the Goldenberg affair, when the government was swindled out of millions of dollars for fictitious gold and gem exports in the 1990s.

But the media has often had to deal with government interference. In March last year, armed police raided the offices of the Standard and broadcaster KTN, damaging equipment and burning papers.

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