Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

RIGHTS-KENYA: Protests Against a Law Aimed at the Heart of the Media

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Aug 16 2007 (IPS) - Members of the media in Kenya took to the streets Wednesday in a silent protest against a law that would compromise press freedom by forcing them to divulge sources. Passed by parliament earlier this month, the Media Council of Kenya Bill is now awaiting presidential assent.

Media representatives gather in Nairobi to protest against the Media Council of Kenya Bill. Credit: Joyce Mulama

Media representatives gather in Nairobi to protest against the Media Council of Kenya Bill. Credit: Joyce Mulama

A clause in the new legislation states that “When a story includes unnamed parties who are not disclosed and the same become the subject of a legal tussle as to who is meant, then the editor shall be obligated to disclose the identity of the party or parties referred to.”

Their mouths gagged with tape and cloth to symbolise the ultimate effects of the law, journalists in their hundreds marched to the office of Attorney General Amos Wako and to parliament in the capital, Nairobi, to present a petition urging head of state Mwai Kibaki not to sign the bill into law.

They also carried placards and posters bearing messages such as “Media Bill: Threat to Whistle Blowers” and “Protect our Sources”. The demonstration was the first of its kind in the East African country.

“In the event that the bill is signed, if a journalist is sued for libel he or she will be forced to name their sources, who will be arrested,” said Mitch Odero, a member of the sub-committee of the Kenya Editors’ Guild that is addressing the contentious clause.

“Leaders will have it easy: they will bang journalists with civil suits, and there will be no defence for journalists,” Odero told IPS.

Noted David Makali, also of the guild: “Confidentiality is the foundation on which the rest of journalism’s professional ethics stand. It is the essence of freedom of the press. Like privileged advocate-client communication, confidentiality is crucial to the practice of journalism.”

“We cannot expose our sources…”

These sentiments were echoed by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders in an Aug. 7 letter to Kibaki, in which it called on the president not to approve the legislation.

“Furthermore, journalists are not supposed to be police or judicial auxiliaries. Democratic governments often point out that it is not the job of the press to act as informer or prosecutor,” noted the media watchdog.

“For this reason, forcing journalists to reveal their sources under pain of being sanctioned by a court violates not only the principle of professional confidentiality but also journalistic ethics.”

The Law Society of Kenya has expressed reservations about the bill, as has Wako, who noted in an Aug. 14 statement that “…when I present the bill to the president for assent, I shall be advising the president not to assent but to refer the bill back to the national assembly for reconsideration of the offending clause by deletion or suitable amendment.”

Authorities had consulted the media during discussions about the bill.

“Our organisation approves of the Kenyan government’s dialogue efforts and search for a consensus in the drafting of this law,” said Reporters Without Borders in its letter.

“But we find it incomprehensible that it was amended by a clause introduced at the last minute by parliamentarian Karue Muriuki. Not only did its introduction violate the consensual spirit in which the law was drafted, but its content is contrary to the universal democratic standards advocated inter alia by the United Nations.”

It is widely believed that the clause would deter whistle blowers from exposing misdeeds in the media, so denying the public access to essential information. To date, the media has played a key role in bringing instances of corruption to the attention of Kenyans, notably the Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing scandals.

The Goldenberg affair, which took place in the early 1990s, reportedly cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds through the dubious export of gold and diamonds. Viewed as Kenya’s biggest case of government corruption, it came to the fore after confidential sources tipped off the media.

Whistle blowers also informed the press about the scam relating to Anglo Leasing and Finance Limited, a fictitious firm that was awarded contracts to supply the country with a system for producing passports that could not be forged – and to construct forensic laboratories for the police. This scandal was unearthed in 2004.

Coverage of both these scams sparked public outrage that prompted official investigations – the type of public accountability that many fear would be undermined with passage of the bill. As Reporters Without Borders notes, the legislation risks having “disastrous consequences for Kenyan democracy”.

In addition, the entry into law of the Media Council of Kenya Bill would probably earn Kenya sharp criticism during the Pan African Editors Forum, to be held in Nairobi in October. The meeting will bring together editors from across the continent to discuss issues such as press freedom and media law.

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