Nairobi - Kenya's vibrant media and outspoken activists are
up in arms over two recent parliamentary bills they say will curb hard-won
freedoms, muzzle government critics and undermine democracy.
Last month, MPs pushed through a hugely controversial bill
that could see journalists and outlets policed by a special quasi-government
body and slapped with huge fines and potentially even forced out of business if
they violate a code of conduct.
Parliament has also set its sights on NGOs, drawing up a law
that would place 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.
"There seems to be a calculated move to vilify,
frustrate or muzzle the operations and voices of state and non-state actors
involved in governance and accountability work in Kenya and the region at
large," fumed Beryl Aidi of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.
"The cumulative effect is that they end up limiting the
civic space," she said.
What exactly prompted parliament's actions is unclear, but
Kenyan authorities have been at loggerheads with the media and civil society
groups for much of this year.
In March, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate
William Ruto secured a narrow first-round election victory, and local
pro-democracy groups were quick to cry foul and relay accusations of voting
Kenyatta and Ruto are also facing crimes against humanity
charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for allegedly
masterminding ethnic unrest after disputed 2007 elections that left at least 1 100
dead and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Local human rights groups have since come under fire for
helping the ICC, with some officials accusing them of "coaching" or
manipulating witnesses to get them to testify against the country's leadership.
Kenyan lawmakers, meanwhile, have been the target of angry
protests after they voted themselves big rises in their salaries - already
ranked among the highest in the world. In one demonstration, activists paraded
a giant papier-mache pig doused in animal blood as part of a series of
"greedy pig" protests.
Then came the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in
September by Islamist gunmen, which saw Kenya's armed forces accused of helping
themselves to cash, beer and electrical goods -- with security camera footage
of the alleged looting being widely broadcast by the local media.
According to Sheila Muwanga Nabachwa, vice president of the
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Kenyan parliament is
signalling it has had enough.
"These two bills are a part of a government policy
aimed at restricting the capacity to react for voices who are deemed too
critical," she said.
Kenyan civil society, she added, has for several months
endured "a campaign to stigmatise, degrade and weaken them".
Mwalimu Mati, a prominent anti-corruption activist, said
Kenya's ruling elite betrayed an "insecurity about independent criticism
and independent voices", and that the moves were evoking painful memories
of Kenya's authoritarian past.
Risk of a return to old days
"It has happened before in Kenya history," he
said, recalling that Kenya adopted a liberal constitution upon independence
from Britain in 1963, only to see single-party rule ushered in by 1969 and the
autocratic rule of Daniel arap Moi from 1978 to 2002.
Both president Kenyatta and Vice President Ruto are viewed
as Moi's political heirs - Kenyatta was designated as Moi's successor, while
Ruto has taken his place as the leader of the Kalenjin community, one of
Kenya's key tribes.
"It's a test of our institutions," said Mati,
questioning whether parliament and the president - if he chooses to endorse the
bills - will be challenged by the Supreme Court.
"The risk of a return to the old days should not be
minimised," added the FIDH's Muwanga Nabachwa.
Kenyan NGOs and the media are fighting back, with rights
groups launching an online petition and the media using their front pages to
denounce the "draconian" measures.
The Daily Nation newspaper has said the media bill would put
Kenya "in the same ranks with Zimbabwe, Cuba, Ethiopia and Kuwait"
and set the country "firmly on the path of regression into the era of
Kenyatta and Ruto have distanced themselves from the storm,
promising that the media bill will be sent back to parliament and the issues