Church leaders in Kenya have urged the government to step back from a proposed law that critics say will muzzle the media, after the country's parliament passed the measure that is seen as a threat to press freedom.
"Let us not gag the media," Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi said on December 14 in Kisii, western Kenya. "Let us put in place regulations that will see us have a responsible media."
On December 10, the parliament in Nairobi passed the Kenya Communication (Amendment) Bill of 2008. This gives powers to the minister of information to seize broadcasting equipment from television stations, among other measures. Since then, journalists, some politicians and civil society groups have staged protests to urge President Mwai Kibaki not to sign the bill into law.
"Arbitrary exercise of powers negates the clamor by Kenyans for serious checks and balances on the executive," said the Rev. Peter Karanja, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya. Karanja, an Anglican, said the draft law portrayed the media as the problem, while it is the politicians who are tearing the country apart.
The measures follow criticism of the alleged conduct of the media during widespread violence that followed disputed election results at the end of 2007. Two commissions which investigated the violence mentioned that reporting by the media in some instances could have fanned ethnic animosity, through the airing of hate speeches, before and after the disputed poll of December 2007.
Karanja said the Media Council, which is tasked with the responsibility of upholding journalistic integrity had failed to do so.
"While the realities of that period may be the inspiration behind the effort by the political class in seeking to muzzle the press, such an approach would be retrogressive," said Karanja.
The debate on the bill is threatening to break apart Kenya's coalition government, with the prime minister, Raila Odinga, who had said that the 2007 election was rigged, opposing the draft law.
"We have come a long way fighting for the freedom of association, religion and of the press. There was a time when politicians could not even hold a press conference," Odinga told the parliament on December 16.
Church, the media, political activists and civil society groups fear the latest action by some of the country's politicians will reverse human rights gains.