Kenya journalists protest media bill that could ‘shrink democratic space’

The bill creates a government tribunal that can fine journalists if it finds them guilty of breaching a code of conduct

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About 300 journalists and civil rights activists marched to parliament and the president’s office Tuesday in Kenya’s capital to protest what they say is an attempt by lawmakers to stifle criticism by pressuring journalists with monetary fines.

Many of the protesters sang songs while carrying placards. Others wore tape across their mouths to symbolize the gagging of the media.

David Ohito, the vice chairman of the Kenya Editors Guild, said journalists want changes to the Kenya Information and Communication Amendment bill.

The bill creates a government tribunal that can fine journalists up to $5,500 and media companies around $230,000 if the tribunal finds them guilty of breaching a code of conduct that stipulates the need for accuracy, fairness, independence and integrity, Ohito said. Most journalists earn about $200 a month.

He said parliament created the bill to target journalists in anger over media exposure after legislators awarded themselves hefty raises soon after being sworn in this year.

Kenya’s many newspapers and television stations have also focused on legislators’ resistance to efforts by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission to regulate their pay, including attempts by parliament to impeach commissioners. The commission was created by Kenya’s 2010 constitution to determine government salaries. Before that, legislators determined their own salaries.

Kenyan legislators are among the highest paid in the world, earning more than $15,000 a month in salary and allowances, while the average Kenyan earns $1,500 a year. Many Kenyans consider their legislators overpaid and greedy.

Photojournalist and civil rights activist Boniface Mwangi said he opposes the bill because it allows for anonymous complaints. Mwangi said President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government wants to muzzle the press to avoid accountability.

Kenyatta last month declined to sign the Kenya Information and Communication Amendment Bill into law. Instead he made a few changes and sent it back to parliament. Kenyatta’s changes were not substantial, said Tom Rhodes of the Committee to Protect Journalists, though the changes reduced potential fines against journalists from nearly $11,500 to $5,500.

Rhodes said the bill was being used “as a scare tactic to silence the press,” which recently has published investigative stories showing the government in a bad light.

William Oloo Janak, the chairman of the Kenya Correspondents Association, said that if the bill becomes law it will shrink Kenya’s democratic space. “They are targeting the media more because the media is the one giving space to all the other critical voices,” he said.

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