Nairobi (AFP) - Kenya's media reacted with shock and outrage Friday after parliament voted through a bill that could see journalists and outlets slapped with huge fines for violating a code of conduct.
In a late-night sitting Thursday, MPs voted to set up and appoint a new Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal with the teeth to impose penalties of up to 20 million Kenyan shillings (173,000 euros, $234,000) on offenders and even bar journalists from working.
The bill, which is pending approval by President Uhuru Kenyatta, would also herald strict controls on radio and television broadcasts, with stations obliged to ensure that 45 percent of programme content and advertising is locally-made.
In a furious reaction, The Daily Nation newspaper said the bill "puts the country in the same ranks with Zimbabwe, Cuba, Ethiopia and Kuwait" and had set Kenya "firmly on the path of regression into the era of darkness."
"In one dramatic swoop, parliament has written away the media's rights," wrote the paper, a pillar of Kenya's burgeoning and vibrant independent media.
"It is a frightening place, and it is valid to ask: what is there to prevent parliament from simply sweeping away the independence of the judiciary tomorrow?" the paper said, challenging the bill as unconstitutional.
"This law is draconian and very punitive and we reject it," said Cyrus Kamau, managing director for Capital Group -- home to CapitalFM, one of Kenya's most respected independent radio stations and news websites.
He said the new media tribunal "will always be biased because it's an extension of the government," and that restrictions on content and advertising would damage Kenya's place in the global economy.
"I hope the president will listen to us, and we appeal to him to reject this bill and return it to the MPs," he said.
According to The Star newspaper, the new bill will effectively hand the government "a stranglehold over the media", while The Standard said democracy and free speech in Kenya had been "dealt a major blow".
Government hints at compromise
The passing of the bill comes amid a string of measures to reinforce national security in the wake of the September's attack by Islamist gunmen on the Westgate shopping mall.
Kenyan media drew the ire of authorities by broadcasting security camera footage of troops who were dispatched to the scene of the attack purportedly robbing the upmarket mall.
Police chief David Kimaiyo reacted by summoning two journalists and a media executive for questioning, although the summons was retracted following a media outcry. Still, President Kenyatta said the media "should not be too quick to vilify our security forces" and said too much coverage was being given to terrorists.
Under the new bill, media houses can be fined up to 20 million Kenyan shillings and individual journalists up to one million, with the additional risk of being "de-listed", or barred from receiving official press accreditation. The tribunal also has the power to seize the property of an offender if a fine is not paid.
According to the Daily Nation, "even one fine is enough to cripple most FM stations". It also said the measures could have a devastating effect on what it described as Kenya's "lively blogosphere".
"By silencing the media, politicians know they can do whatever they like with impunity. No one will ever know," wrote Nation journalist Mutuma Mathiu, describing the Kenyan media as a key source of checks and balances in public life.
"Left to themselves, politicians would bankrupt the country and take us back to hunting and gathering," he wrote.
Responding to the outcry, Kenya's Information Minister Fred Matiang'i appealed for calm and asserted a compromise could be found.
"Freedom of the press is not under attack in Kenya," he said. "There is room for dialogue, there is room for a conversation on the legislation."
Kenyan lawmakers have been the target of public anger in the past. In May they voted to overturn cuts ordered by the national salaries commission and reinstate their hefty salaries of around 532,000 shillings (4,800 euros, around 6,200 dollars) a month tax-free -- ranked among the highest in the world.