Kenya parliament presses ahead with media gag law

President Kenyatta

President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya

Kenyan lawmakers adopted amendments to a controversial media bill Thursday despite an opposition walk-out and international concern about press freedom.

The bill, which was passed in October but sent back to parliament with presidential changes, will see journalists and media outlets policed by a special quasi-government body.

It also calls for huge fines that could force the shutdown of news organisations.

Beryl Aidi, an official from the Kenya Human Rights Commission, said it was “bad news”, arguing that the most contentious elements of the bill remain despite presidential changes, including the power to impose up to 20 million Kenyan shillings (173,000 euros, $234,000) in fines.

“It does not improve the bill… it does not improve the situation,” she told AFP.

It now only remains to be inked by the president to become law.

The bill has sparked furious reactions from Kenya’s vibrant independent media, with front pages declaring that democracy and free speech were under attack.

The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has said the amended bill still contained “draconian provisions”.

Lawmakers from the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy walked out of parliament as the bill was debated and voted upon.

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“If we do not do this with deep thought, we will be setting a dangerous precedent,” opposition MP Jakoyo Midiwo told parliament. “We will also be opening up the window for a future rogue president.”

Possible individual fines for journalists were cut from one million to 500,000 Kenya shillings (4,230 euros, 5,775 dollars), but that is an amount still crippling for most.

“That is still way too high,” Aidi added.

Earlier this week United Nations human rights experts urged Kenya to reject the media bill, warning it could severely rein in democratic freedoms in the country.

If implemented, it “could lead to restrictive interpretations that would unduly limit the rights to freedom of association, and opinion and expression,” UN expert Frank La Rue said in a statement.

The passing of the media bill comes a day after parliament voted to block a controversial bill on non-governmental organisations.

Sitting late Wednesday, MPs voted out the bill on non-governmental organisations, that if passed would have placed them under de facto government management and, notably, restrict their ability to receive funds from overseas donors — a key source of cash for many rights groups and anti-corruption watchdogs.

Kenyan media said it was the first major defeat in parliament for the ruling coalition party since Kenyatta’s election in March, noting the bill was rejected by 83 to 73 votes, with eight MPs abstaining.