Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki has approved a new media law, the government said on Friday, despite local and international pressure to reject the legislation critics say undermines democracy.
Washington has expressed deep reservations about the law, saying it gives the east African country’s information minister undue influence and that it was understandable Kenyans had demonstrated against the bill.
Several local journalists and civil rights campaigners were arrested during protests at Independence Day celebrations last month. Police broke up a number of demonstrations against the bill with tear gas in the following days.
The amended media law provides for a new communications commission with powers to regulate broadcasting content and impose tougher fines or jail terms for press offenses.
Campaigners had also called for a measure allowing authorities to shut down media outlets during a state of emergency to be revised. The article, first made into law in 1998, was not included in the amendment and remains in force.
Kibaki said in a statement that given the article was not part of the amendment, refusing to sign the bill would not have addressed media concerns.
“Accordingly, I urge the stakeholders to address this issue separately,” Kibaki said, reiterating his commitment to press freedom and democracy.
“I, however, wish to appeal to the media to recognize that freedom must go hand-in-hand with responsibility,” he said.
“Press freedom must therefore be counterbalanced with other freedoms and must at all times take into account the overriding interest and the safety of Kenyans,” Kibaki said.
Reporters Without Borders said in a statement it was “stunned” Kibaki had agreed to what it called a reactionary and repressive law. The Committee to Protect Journalists had written to Kibaki urging him to reject the bill.
Kenya’s Media Council said it was shocked and disappointed by Kibaki’s move and some commentators said it was a bad law.
“This bill returns Kenya to authoritarianism. It is totally unacceptable,” Paul Muite, a lawyer and former member of parliament, told KTN television.
He said the fact Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga had called for the bill to be rejected was a worrying sign at a time when Kenya’s coalition government was seeking to introduce reforms — designed to avoid a repeat of post-election violence last year.
Kenya’s coalition administration was formed in April after the post-election crisis at the start of the year killed 1,300 people and drove 300,000 from their homes. Kibaki and Odinga had both claimed victory in a presidential poll.
“It jeopardizes, in my view, political goodwill and the environment to proceed with constitutional reforms,” Muite said. “It puts into question the political commitment to carry on with the reform agenda in this country. It is a tragic piece of legislation.”
The bill allows the state to raid media houses, interfere with broadcasters’ programming and take stations off the air.