Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta plans to send back to parliament a media bill critics say would stunt democracy in an African nation with unusually broad press freedoms.
Critics said Kenyatta may have acted out of concern to avoid a confrontation with Kenya’s popular and vibrant media and any backlash from the country’s aid donors abroad.
Kenyatta, who was elected in March, had earlier this month urged journalists not to panic after the initial outcry over the bill, saying he would ensure it was constitutional.
“Even if the bill makes its way to the president, through the formal laid-out channels, I can confirm that the president will return the bill to parliament,” presidential spokesman Manoah Esipisu said on Wednesday.
He said Kenyatta would demand that members of parliament – which is dominated by his Jubilee coalition – ensure the legislation complies with Article 34 of the constitution stating that the “freedom and independence of electronic, print and all other types of media is guaranteed”.
Critics say rules laid down in the bill would curb investigative reports on corruption that plagues Kenyan public life and some media groups threatened to go to court to block it. The bill outlines fines for individuals or companies over code violations.
The constitution’s Article 34 also allows for setting up an independent body to regulate and monitor media standards, although any formation of such a commission has also raised concerns that it could promote censorship.
Activists say the Kenyan media keep an indispensable check on corruption and other abuses of power, and serve as one of the few institutions that hold public officials to account.
Rights activists say the media in countries near Kenya, including Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda, are tightly controlled by the state authorities.
Another bill being drawn up by parliament, but which has also provoked public criticism in its draft form, covers non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the way they are funded.
Critics say the bill now under consideration could hurt NGOs that seek to hold state authorities and others to account. Many Kenyan NGOs receive support from Western or other donors.
Esipisu said Kenyatta would make his position clear when the bill was drawn up. But he added: “NGOs always seek a vigorous audit of funding available for government, political parties or other groups, and it must really be obvious that similar stringent audit measures should be required of NGOs.”
In addition, he said other democracies, such as India, had NGO regulations in place which enhanced NGO transparency.