Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Kenyan President heckled over Media Bill during Independence Celebration!

Tuesday, 16th December 2008. 3:47pm

By: Manasseh Zindo.

Nairobi: The Government of President Mwai Kibaki in Kenya is slowly losing touch with the people since his disputed controversial re-election in December 2007 that plunged Kenya into deadly post-election violence. The coalition government has angered the public by the refusal of Members of Parliament to pay tax and passing of a draconian Bill to muzzle the Media.

On Friday December 12, Kenya marked 45 years of self-governance since it gained independence from Britain but the celebrations at the Nyanyo National Stadium in the capital, Nairobi, was marred by protests, and arrests of journalists, and activists.

The journalist and civil rights activists were protesting a bill passed by Parliament on Wednesday December 10, which gives the government powers to control the media. The bill known as the Kenya Communication (Amendment) Bill 2008 has caused outcry from media practitioners who have declared that the media is under attack.

Protests over attempts to muzzle the media, rising food prices and failure by MPs to pay taxes forced the President to cut short his speech during the Friday’s Jamhuri (Independence) Day celebrations. More than 70 people, among them journalists, were arrested and locked up at various police stations in Nairobi.

Radio presenters Walter Mong’are popularly known as “Nyambane”, Kiss FM personality Carolyne Mutoko were among those held by police. Mr Mong’are, who had been seen earlier mingling with other journalists at the venue, changed his clothes and donned a white and black stripped shirt and pants, the official attire in the country’s jails.

He made an attempt to access the podium where President Kibaki, the First Lady, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka were seated, but security agents quickly pounced on him. Mr Mong’are was wrestled to the ground and kicked by senior police officers as he made his way into the stadium dressed in clothes resembling those worn by prisoners to symbolize impending imprisonment of media if the controversial bill passed by Parliament is signed into law.

A section of the crowd tried to hurl plastic water bottles at the security agents who were carrying the comedian out of the stadium but failed to stop them. Ms Mutoko was arrested as she arrived at the stadium dressed in a black T-Shirt with the inscription “No Tax, No Tax Uta Do? (What will you do)?”

The crowd remained unexcited as President Kibaki went round in his ceremonial military Land Rover, in protest against the arrest of comedian-cum-journalist Walter Mong’are. At one time, a crowd at the one of the terraces attempted to break the gates, demanding to take a petition to the President. Chaos followed as the police struggled to restrain the unruly crowd. But even after succeeding, a section of them continued shouting “tuna njaa” (We are hungry), disrupting the speeches. Moment after President Kibaki had finished his official address in English and turned to Kiswahili he was forced to cut short his speech when one protester who had sneaked his way into the VIP dais shouted the president down. Mr.

Frederick Odhiambo, a member of the Bunge la Mwananchi, (Parliament of the People) had managed to make his way into the VIP area and sat about 10 meters away from President Kibaki, Prime Minister Raila Odinga amongst a bevy of invited leaders and envoys. His arrest among VIPs shocked the country and VIPs themselves who, ostensibly, never expected such an incident to occur in their midst.

Questions were asked how he made his way there and sat on a seat reserved for an assistant minister. Shortly before the incident, an angry President Kibaki who had apparently been appalled by heckles and shouts of “hunger, hunger, we want food and MPs must pay taxes” had said: “Let those who want to fight do so”. The President had made the remarks after a section of the crowd shouted at him when he started giving his Kiswahili speech.

Before forcing the President to cut his Mr Odhiambo who was just 10 metres away shouted: “The rich are oppressing the poor, MPs are not paying taxes and Kibaki has not said anything”, as the presidential elite security descended on him. The incident became more dramatic when the president told-off the heckler: “If you are out of your mind, blame yourself,” Kibaki to the heckler in Kiswahili and hastily ended his speech. The President, First Lady Lucy, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka immediately left the podium with other VIPs in tow.

Following the arrest of Odhiambo, members of Bunge la Mwananchi (The Parliament of the People) in a letter addressed to Kenyans and friends of Kenya, said that Mr. Odhiambo was descended on by the security. “They descended on him and mercilessly carried him off, covering his mouth so that he could not be heard,” the civil society organization said in a letter signed by George Nyongesa and e-mailed to media houses.

Mr Frederick Odhiambo was taken to the hospital the following day (Saturday) under tight security but he told the press that he was tortured in police cell with his private parts injured. He was admitted at the Nairobi Women Hospital where he is being treated.

At the Friday celebrations, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a darling of the people, was also shouted down as he tried to calm the public. Also arrested at the celebration was Mwalimu Mati and his wife Jayne, both of Mars Group, a human rights non-governmental organization based in Kenya.

Police targeted people who wore T-shirts that bore messages of dissatisfaction with the recently passed Communications Bill, which is designed to curtail the freedom of the press. The T-shirts also had messages denouncing the high food prices, failure to tax MPs’ salaries as well as failure to implement the Waki Report. The T-shirts bore messages like, ‘Tumechoka (We’re tired)’, ‘Enough is Enough’, ‘No MPs Tax Uta Do (What will you do?)’

Early on Thursday evening, a day before the celebration Kenya Television Network Managing Editor, Linus Kaikai iced it with a personal letter to President Kibaki, urging him to correct the wrong done by Parliament. Mr Kaikai reminded Kibaki of a recent tête-à-tête they had at Maasai Mara Game reserve. Kaiaki reminded the president of his past pledges to protect the media and took him through instances when journalists and media houses had been unlawfully raided and harassed by State authorities.

Last year, Kibaki had assured the country the protection of freedom of expression and the Press. He said his Government would continue to work with the media to ensure Press freedom is respected and enriched. Kibaki, one of Kenya’s longest serving politician said this was essential not only because it is a basic right but also because it is vital for development of democracy.

In Mombasa, journalists covering the celebrations had tape strapped around the mouth as a way of protesting the law allowing a government-appointed commission to determine broadcast content, and giving the Minister for Internal Security powers to raid media houses. Two years ago Kenyan security agent and wife of President Mwai Kibaki in separate incidents invaded media houses in Nairobi and hold the media houses hostage for several hours.

The Friday arrest of journalists in Nairobi and members of the civil society received immediate condemnation from a section of leaders in Kenya. Kenya Editor’s Guild chairman Macharia Gaitho condemned the government for carrying out the arrests. He said: “We’ve had very sad happenings today. Journalists and members of the civil society have been arrested for expressing their opinions.” Mr Gaitho said the arrests were as a result of the media’s campaigns for MPs’ taxation. He said the media fraternity demanded an apology from President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga for the arrests.

Kenya’s renowned lawyer and former MP Paul Muite criticized the actions saying it was regrettable that 45 years after independence, Kenyans still face dictatorship. "It is a violation of freedom of expression and this must be condemned," Muite said while visiting the detained journalists and civil right activists at Langata police station.

Wife of Prime Minister Mrs Ida Odinga was among the first to condemn the bill and offered the media her support. She also denounced the arrest of journalists and activists. Mrs Odinga, an advocate of democracy in Kenya, said in the past when she was facing tribulations, it was only journalist who were listening to her and writing her stories.

“I have walked along a rough path in the politics of Kenya. During that journey, most of the times, friends deserted me when I was viewed as bad company for holding certain views. In all those moments, the only people who were willing to listen to me and tell my story were journalists. They did it either as professionals or as friends. My conscience therefore cannot allow me to keep quiet when the media is under attack,” she said.

She termed the arrests of journalists by the police as outrageous. “How can the police arrest people who were demanding the right to do their job?” Ida posed in a letter faxed to media houses.

Student Organization of the University of Nairobi chairman Dan Mwangi said the MPs were against the campaign by media to have their allowances taxed. “They are trying to apply the same thing they did on former Finance minister Amos Kimunya to silence any voices calling for taxation of their salaries,” Mwangi said.

Centre of the Kenya for Law and Research International chairman Morris Odhiambo said the MPs were revenging after the media waged a campaign to push them to pay tax. Mr Odhiambo said the “media were on the forefront on the tax issue and this has been seen as a threat to these MPs”. Labour Union Secretary General Francis Atwoli described the actions by Parliament as a big step backward in the war against dictatorship. He termed the bill as archaic, draconian, and retrogressive. Atwoli accused MPs of betraying the media.

Women Rights advocate and former Nominated MP Njoki Ndungu trashed the draconian media law as ‘unconstitutional’. Njoki advised the media to move to court to quash the clauses that bestow overwhelming powers on the Internal Security Minister and the Communication Commission of Kenya. "The court has the power to invalidate the sections which are unconstitutional," said Njoki.

Lands Minister James Orengo, a member of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) joined in and said the Kenya Communication (Amendment) Bill 2008 was unconstitutional and negates section 79 of the constitution that guarantees freedom of expression. “The position of ODM as far as the media bill is concerned is that it is should not have been there. As a party we do not support it because it reduces the democratic space,” Orengo, one of Kenya’s most respected lawyer said.

Mr Orengo said ODM was not party to the new media bill as it was approved by the cabinet before the formation of the Grand Coalition Government. “If the president assents to the bill, we still have a right to go to court though I do not think we want to go that direction,” he said.

The Lands Minister who represented Prime Minister Raila Odinga at a press conference in Mumias Western Kenya, said Information Minister Samuel Poghisio from the rivalry ODM-Kenya Party of Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka took the bill to parliament when other MPs were meeting President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga on the formation of a special tribunal to try suspects on the post-election violence.

“Many of us were not in the house when the bill was going through,” Orengo reiterated. “The media had made frantic efforts to intercept the Bill before it got to the floor of the House. But MPs, angered by a parallel campaign to have their allowances taxed, saw in this Bill a weapon to hit back and punish the media. Without minding the consequences, it took only 25 out of the 222 MPs to pass it this week,” said The Standard Newspaper.

Lands Minister Orengo noted that there were sufficient laws in place that needed only slight modifications if any to give the media more democratic space. “This bill takes us back many years democratically. But I want to assure the media fraternity that the Prime minister is right now engaged in discussing the matter further,” he told the press on Saturday.

Mr Orengo confirmed that the Prime Minister Raila Odinga was scheduled to meet with media owners association where he'll receive a petition from the media owners. “There are things one must stand and speak against without hesitation. With all good intentions this bill is going to fail,” Orengo assured the media fraternity.

The Minister said that it was embarrassing to see the state resort to coercion to limit the freedom of expression which he said consisted of the freedom to hold peaceful demonstration. “I feel a little ashamed that people like Nyambane (Walter Mong’are), Mati (Mwalimu) and Caroline Mutoko could be arrested for doing what is right,” said Mr. Orengo.

Mr Orengo said that ODM has listened to the public outcry and would announce some kind of agreement to remit their taxes. The party also pledged to rally legislators to reach a compromise to allow their salaries and allowances to be taxed. The Lands Minister, a former political prisoner said there was need to review the draconian Bill.

Other MPs who condemned the bill and arrest of journalists included Budalang’i MP Ababu Namwamba who said the arrest of journalists, signaled the return of repression in the country. His Cherengany counterpart Joseph Kutuny accused Information Minister Samuel Poghisio of habouring a hidden agenda against the media. Local Government Assistant Minister Njeru Githae said, if put in the wrong hands, the Bill was draconian but added the Bill would only put restrictions to those who do not want to remain professionals.

Anglican Church Maseno South Diocese Bishop Mwai Abiero said passing the Bill was an affront of Media freedom. Abiero read mischief in the move and accused the Ministry of Information and Communication of hiding something from Kenyans. The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) also condemned the bill and arrests.

Kitale Catholic Bishop Maurice Crowler urged President Kibaki not to assent to the Bill. The Council of Imams and Preachers in Kenya (CIPK) said Kenyans were losing faith in the Tenth Parliament. “It is quite true now that they are not happy following heightened coverage by the media on their failure to pay taxes,” said CIPK National Organizing Secretary General Sheikh Mohamed Khalifa. Communication and Information Minister Samuel Poghisio says the Government has no interest in muzzling the media or to control their content, but the Media in Kenya says history show that, there is every legitimate reason to express reservations.

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