A statutory body to oversee the regulation of Kenya's media could soon be set up if Parliament enacts a bill tabled in the House by the government last month, writes Eric Nyakagwa.

Those in support of the bill say there is need for a media watchdog body, saying the industry has been invaded by quacks who are thriving on extortion and sensational writing, without regard to even the basic journalistic ethics.

However, the move has attracted sharp opposition from the media industry and opposition politicians, who say it would undermine press freedom in the east African nation.

While the government wants to take control of the Media Council of Kenya, media practitioners are lobbying to have the bill amended to provide for self-regulation.

Though a similar body, with a full-fledged ethics and complaints committee, presently exists it is largely toothless, as it is not backed by statute.

While many stakeholders agree on the need to enact legislation to govern media regulation, they are opposed to provisions in the bill that would see the minister responsible for information and communication given powers to appoint members of the media council, including the chairman. They argue this would serve to muzzle the press as the council would be operating at his whim.

Though several bodies that should propose members to the council are listed in the bill, stakeholders say some of them have no business being included in the list and have instead came up with a parallel list.

Also contentious is a proposal that all practicing journalists should receive government registration and that they can be deregistered by the media council if they violate the code of conduct for journalists.

At a meeting in the coastal city of Mombasa last week, the parliamentary committee on energy and communications, led by Baringo Central MP Gideon Moi, agreed to table the proposed amendments in parliament for consideration. Industry stakeholders have already received the support of over 34 Members of Parliament, who have agreed to oppose any bid to muzzle the press.

Among the amendments is a provision that the role of registering journalists be left to the Kenya Union of Journalists to safeguard media independence as well as professionalism in the industry. A recommended media advisory board should be done away with, according to the parliamentary

According to Moi, the bill, as presently drafted is retrogressive and intended to gag the freedom of the press.

Moi said the Media Owners Association should fund the council for it to be autonomous. "The media council should be given more teeth so that it can be able to deal with errant members," he said.

"We have no problem with the Government being part of the council so that it can take care of KNA journalists and public finances extended to the council," he added during a stakeholders meeting in Naivasha on Saturday.

But speaking at the same forum, information minister Mutahi Kagwe said that the government would not withdraw the bill and instead asked those opposed to it to read it carefully before making their contributions.

"The Bill is here to stay and the media owners should not be in the frontline criticising it before reading the document," he said. "Despite the concerted effort by opposition MPs to shoot down the Bill for political mileage, the Government is not going to withdraw it," added the minister.

This is not the first time that Kenya's government tries to regulate the media. However, previous bids, including one by the dictatorial Kanu regime, failed as a result of sharp opposition from
both local and international media and human rights bodies.

On June 1, President Kibaki told a national public holiday rally that his administration has no reason to muzzle the press, following claims that the introduction of the bill was aimed at silencing the increasingly vibrant Kenyan press ahead of the General Election later in the year.