There’s a saying in journalism that if you aren’t making someone mad with your reporting at least once a day, then you’re really not doing your job. If that’s true, given the angry reaction of lawmakers in Kenya, the media there must be very good at what they do.
The Kenyan Parliament recently approved a sweeping media law that if signed into law could impose stringent controls and sanctions on the country’s newspapers, radio and television stations. Apparently stung by press coverage of their activities, lawmakers want to bring media outlets into line with a government-appointed commission given broad powers to require more “professionalism” in their work – or else!
The commission would have the power to grant or deny operating licenses and could interrupt broadcasts it found objectionable. As is currently the case under the 1998 law, the Minister of Internal Security would have broad powers to raid media outlets and seize equipment if he or she determined it poses a “threat to security and tranquility,” a concept that is left undefined. Finally, heavy fines and even jail terms could be imposed for press offences.
The bill understandably has sparked protests among Kenyan journalists and the public. Lawmakers themselves should be concerned, however. While a free press can often be at odds with their interests, it’s better in the long run for government to have a watchdog than a lap dog.
President Mwai Kibaki has about 2 weeks to accept or reject the package, and it is hoped he considers the measure very carefully. The measure threatens not only press, but also public freedoms vital to a healthy democracy. As drafted, the legislation represents a step backward, not a step forward toward the brighter future Kenyans want their leaders to pursue.