Showdown looms after Kibaki signs controversial media law

He did it! Against all the advice, protests and petitions, President Mwai Kibaki signed into law the Kenya Information, Communication and Technology Bill 2008.

Now, the Kenyan government can shut down broadcast stations and confiscate equipment without a court warrant. The government can, thanks to the new law, intercept your postal mail, disclose its contents or dispose of it altogether.

It gets worse

Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his ODM party opposed the Communications Bill. With Kibaki’s signature yesterday, a showdown is in the offing that could wreck the giant coalition between Kibaki and Raila. The end of the coalition could stoke fresh ethnic clashes between ethnic groups allied to the two men.

But the Prime Minister and his party are not entirely blameless in the draconian law. When the Bill was brought for debate in parliament, Raila and ODM legislators refrained from voting. The Bill was passed by a mere 25 pro-Kibaki legislators, and ODM reacted only after mounting public outrage against the law.

After the Bill was passed in the absence of ODM, a key ally of the Prime Minister said that they would go to court should President Kibaki sign it into law. Some legislators even threatened to lead ODM out of the coalition. It now remains to be seen whether the party will make good on its threats. Should that happen, Prime Minister Raila Odinga will be in a very difficult situation.

Raila is now between a rock and a hard place. Either way, the country’s political stability will rapidly deteriorate. If he stays in the coalition, he will lose the reformist credentials that won him fanatic support during the 2007 presidential campaigns. If he walks out of the coalition, the international community will blame him for the consequences.

The current coalition between Raila and Kibaki is the product of international mediation following disputed elections in December 2007 where both men were front-runners. Political and ethnic clashes between their supporters left over 1,000 dead and half a million homeless. Many of the displaced are still living in camps, fearing fresh violence.

The Communication Bill 2008 was first introduced before the 2007 elections but was shelved as the government faced declining popularity. This year, it was reintroduced in what the government calls, an attempt to regulate the media industry.

Kenya’s media say they are capable of controlling their activities in line with the tastes of their audiences but the state argues that self regulation has not worked.

What the media bill says …

Under the law that President Kibaki has assented, the minister in charge of information and broadcasting has powers to unilaterally – without recourse to parliament or the courts – to enter, search and seize broadcasting stations and apparatus. The minister can dismantle and dispose of such stations and apparatus.

Workers at the post office will have the right to open up mail and read in the name of public security.

The minister for internal security will have overwhelming powers to unilaterally suspend and even obliterate constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, property, privacy, protection of the law and due process.

The future of the coalition

Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his party oppose the Bill and might walk out of the Giant Coalition. This may or may not necessitate an election but with existing ethnic tensions its unrealistic to hold fresh elections any time soon. Violence will be the natural result and deaths and displacement will resume.

On the other hand, should Raila and ODM stay with Kibaki, their credibility will be irredeemably destroyed. Already, most ODM supporters feel that their cause was betrayed by Raila accepting to work as Kibaki’s Prime Minister.

In any case, with the Electoral Commission of Kenya’s dissolution last month, there is currently no legally constituted organization to oversee elections.

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With reports from the Daily Express newspaper
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