Kenyan moves to pass draconian new media laws should cause concern throughout East Africa, writes Bodi Odiko in Eaast Africa Business Week.
With one strike of the pen, Kenya may return to the era of media oppression and suppression, a move that seems could be replicated in the EAC region. Media freedom in the region is going through a patchy period as the governments attempt to tighten the noose and hold the leash on press freedom thus reversing gains in democratic space.
Public outcry in Kenya continued this week following the passing of the Kenya Communications (Amendment) Bill 2008 in the August House.
Yet according to analysts, the Bill was flawed not only in content – but up to and including the modality with which legislators moved to see the draconian laws through the light of day. It is alleged that a paltry 25 Members of Parliament were in the House at time of passing of the infamous Bill – thus legalising irregularity. According to the rules of procedure, quorum of at least 30 MPs should be in Parliament to discuss and pass any law. But that aside, the Bill is mid-wifed by the Minister of Information and Communications and my long respected University Lecturer in Journalism – turned media basher, Hon Samuel Pogisihio. The Bill will basically allow the Minister of Internal Security to raid Media houses with impunity, seize equipment, arrest journalists at will and disable the Press anytime in Kenya. Hon Pogishio as Information Minister will also have the right to choose content, interrupt broadcasts and dismantle television stations.
If accented and converted into law by President Kibaki, the move will amount to one of the most serious attacks on Press freedom in Kenya since the days of the Moi regime which trampled on freedom of Press with impunity.
In Uganda, 2008 was one of the worst for the Press in the country.
A number of media practitioners are today facing various charges under obnoxious laws ranging from criminal libel and sedition. Journalists have continued to be harassed in their line of duty. There are new laws gagging the electronic media and the radio owners are reportedly cracking under state pressure. Tanzania's scribes have had their fair share of trouble.
Independent media houses in Tanzania have been intimidated by the authorities. Currently a newspaper in Tanzania MwanaHalisi is smarting from a 90 day suspension over publication of an article that offended the government. Still fresh in the minds of many is the recent spilling of corrosive acid on editors of a privately owned newspaper.
The Government proposed the Freedom of Information Bill in 2006, which was severely criticised for further curtailing citizen's access to information and freedom of expression.
Kigali also put in place tough regulations just before its recent elections. The relationship between the government and the independent media has been growing from bad to worse. The government accuses media of lack of professionalism, sensationalism and failing to appreciate current development.
On their part, members of the Fourth Estate who have suffered state harassment in form of beatings and closure, accuse the Kagame administration of combative attitude and closing the curtain on media freedom in the country.
Ideally, the EAC Treaty allows for the freedom of association and expression. Denying the citizens of the region the very fundamental right is brutality perfected and the acts put into serious doubts the regional governments' promise to strengthen democratic ideals. The role of the media is more important in this time and age and an important cornerstone of good governance, democracy and the rule of law.
The media seems to be treated with utter contempt in the region including attempts to revert back to the dark ages.
Governments must encourage and allow positive criticism and promote tolerance in the interest of the public good.
There are mechanisms for seeking recourse and this should be adhered to in instances where the government or other stakeholders are aggrieved. Kenya has no real opposition under the current coalition government dispensation and the role of checking the government should be a preserve of citizenry and all stakeholders including the media. Generally across board, it is important for the bad laws that oppress the freedom of information be challenged in courts of laws and regionally at the East African Court of justice.
* This column first appeared in East Africa Business Week, Kampala.