Kenyan editors are demanding that the government withdraws a bill that would enable authorities to raid media houses and seize broadcasting equipment at will, writes Dennis Itumbi.
The editors term the Kenya Communications Amendment Bill 2008, also known as ICT Bill, as draconian and oppressive to a media that has previously fought the law with success.
When it was first tabled, journalists sought the removal of sections that would have prevented cross-ownership of media in what was seen as an attempt to close down the nation's largest media houses, The Nation and The Standard, which both own a broadcasting and print outlet.
Only last year, media practitioners took to the streets protesting the introduction of a Media Bill 2007, which sought to force journalists to disclose their sources of information.
David Makali, the chairperson of the EditorsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ Guild, wondered why the government was in a hurry to enact the laws arguing that it should concentrate on the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill that has been before parliament for the last four years.
The Freedom of Information Bill seeks to replace the Official Secrets Act and improve access to public information by the public.
"Why is the government obsessed about controlling the media and seeking power to get into the media houses at will, instead of freeing the ground for us to access information, what is the priority: punish media houses or inform the nation?" asked Makali.
The editors also questioned the intent of the "excess power" vested in the information minister, arguing "it should be controlled and regulated to prevent abuse".
For his part, Hannington Gaya, the chairman of the Media Owners Association (MOA), observed that, "If passed into law, the repercussions of this Bill, which mainly targets broadcasters, would even be more dangerous than the Media Bill".
Media consultant and politician Tony Gachoka claimed that the bill was meant to justify acts like the raid on the Standard Group. "This Bill is illegal, immoral and unconstitutional. Through this Bill, the Information and Communications ministerÃƒâ€šÃ‚Â and his Internal Security counterpart, are working together to frustrate the freedom of press", claimed Gachoka
In March 2006, the then Internal Security Minister John Michuki ordered a police raid on the Standard group of companies, resulting in a loss of millions of shillings. In an unprecedented draconian assault on the media, about 30 heavily armed and hooded police from the elite Kanga squad, ostensibly formed to fight armed and dangerous criminals, descended on the Standard group's offices at midnight, beating up employees, breaking doors, stealing employees' mobile phones, yanking off CCTV cameras and carting away 20 computers.
They later disabled KTN TV, keeping the channel off air for about 13 hours.
The commando squad then proceeded to the Standard printing press, shot the gates open, disabled the plant and set on fire thousands of copies of the day's edition that were just rolling off the press. Similar raids were carried out on the press during the single party dictatorship in the 1980s and early 1990s.
For his part Information and Communications Minister Samuel Poghisio told journalism.co.za that the bill seeks to harmonize the law and policy in the ICT industry, which is the fastest growing industry in the country.
Poghisio says the bill will be tabled in its current form, adding that any further amendments will be done according to the vibrancy of the industry and told editors to await the passage of the laws in parliament then raise their issues.
But Makali immediately responded: "If they do not revise those issues we will seek redress in court."