A bill seeking to establish a statutory council to oversee Kenya's media has passed through the crucial second reading stage, even as opposition Members of Parliament and journalists staged protests, writes Eric Nyakagwa.

But despite the opposition, the Media Bill 2007 was successfully pushed through the second reading and now awaits the committee stage, where amendments can still be made to it before it is send to the president for assent.

During the heated debate, Information minister Mutahi Kagwe and his assistant Koigi Wamwere led the Government MPs and some from the opposition in voting in favour of the Bill.

However, MPs Raila Odinga, Anyang' Nyong'o, Ochilo Ayacko and nominated MP Mutula Kilonzo, put up a spirited fight against the Bill arguing that its intentions were suspect. They argued that the Government's move to regulate the media amounted to attempts to stifle democracy.

The solution in having a responsible media, they said, lied in the culture of civility, which must be upheld by the political class. "It is absurd that the Government wants to try and legitimize its restrictions and oppression against media. We must oppose that," said Raila.

He took issue with provisions in the Bill, particularly the code of conduct, which in effect tries to guide journalists on how to write stories. "The Bill spells doom to the independent media. We should provide for self regulation of media as its done in established democracies," added the MP, who is seeking the presidency in this year's general election.

Debate on the Bill commenced on Tuesday with the government side, led by Vice President Moody Awori and Information minister Mutahi Kagwe insisted there is no plan to muzzle the press. But opposition MPs led by Kabete Member of Parliament Paul Muite said it was attempt to gag the country's media.

Muite, who heads the parliamentary departmental committee on administration of justice and human rights, maintained that the media should be allowed to regulate itself through a strong code of conduct.

But moving the motion, Kagwe told the House the Government has no intention of muzzling the press, instead saying the bill is intended at promoting professionalism among journalists.

"In the recent past, there has been a tendency by media houses saying that the government is attempting to control the press. We have no such intentions," he said.

The minister said that the proposed law, which, among others, intends to introduce a statutory Media Council and govern registration of journalists, does not contravene the constitution adding that many countries the world over have already established media councils to oversee the operations
of media houses.

He said the Government had consulted various stakeholders including the Kenya Union of Journalists, Media Owners Association and members of Parliament before publishing the bill.

Kagwe said media in Kenya had the tendency to go overboard in their reportage. Since the beginning of the Iraqi war, he explained, the United States media has never displayed bodies of killed US soldiers. He faulted Kenyan media for what he termed as "over displaying" bodies of police officers killed recently by Mungiki, a murderous secretive militia that has been wrecking havoc in the East African country, contrary to professional ethics.

The minister said the Government was ready to make some amendments to the bill as proposed by the Parliamentary Committee on Energy and Communication. The committee tabled its recommendations on Tuesday.

As media owners demanded that the bill be shelved for further consultations, Government spokesman Dr Alfred Mutua assured at a weekly press briefing on Thursday that the input of all stakeholders would be incorporated into the final draft.