Kenyan church leaders tell government not to muzzle media

By Ecumenical News International
August 9, 2007

Church leaders in Kenya have joined others in the country in urging President Mwai Kibaki to reject proposed legislation regarding the media, which the country's Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Wangari Maathai, has said would curtail press freedom - writes Fredrick Nzwili from Nairobi.

"We urge the president not to sign the bill," said the Rev Fred Nyabera, executive director of the Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in the Great Lakes Region.

He added: "While we see some cases of irresponsible journalism, which call for checks and balances, the bill needs to be amended so that governments do not get space to manipulate the press."

Nyabera asserted that the media in Kenya were alive and well, and that they should be seen as part of the mechanism that ensures good governance and the rule of law.

"That vibrant media has made Kenyans more confident in expressing their views," Nyabera said, citing an international corruption scandal that involved a proposed new government passport scheme, and which the media exposed. "We see press freedom as very important for good governance," he added.

Nobel Laureate Maathai, an academic and environmental campaigner, warned, "We need free space which is good for our growing democracy. If this bill is passed the way it is, journalists will not conduct their duties effectively."

Kenya has seen a growth in the media's coverage of alleged wrongful government actions, especially corruption and human rights' abuses. The reporting of human rights issues has sometimes angered government officials and some analysts say this is why some pro-government legislators want to rein in the media.

A clause in the proposed legislation that compels journalists to reveal their sources of information in a court case has sparked off protests.

The Kenyan parliament passed the bill on 2 August, with only 29 members of parliament present in the house, out of a total of 222. The bill is currently waiting for the president's assent to become law.

Anglican Bishop Eliud Wabukala, chairperson of Kenya's National Council of Churches, told Ecumenical News International that his message to the president was, "Leave the bill unsigned while we engage the media, and allow some respite to see this as a warning. We want the media to regulate itself. This is the general spirit."

A network of non-governmental organizations condemned the bill at a press conference on 7 August. "The government stands warned that we shall not submit to the return of dictatorship willingly … The media bill is dictatorial. We know that Kenyans cherish their freedom of expression no less than any other rights given to us by the constitution," the groups said.

They also announced two days of demonstrations against the pending law.

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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