Media in East Africa under threat from punitive laws

Rights groups recently produced a report documenting 16 incidents of death threats against journalists and bloggers across Kenya

Journalists at work. Media freedom is at risk in East Africa despite friendly laws. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

IN SUMMARY

  • Rights groups recently produced a report documenting 16 incidents of death threats against journalists and bloggers across Kenya, and cases in which police arbitrarily arrested, detained and later released without charge at least 14 journalists and bloggers.
  • In Uganda, laws like the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 holds journalists criminally liable if they are found communicating with a terrorist or terrorist organisation. Journalists could also fall foul of the law for among others “promoting terrorism” purely because of their work.

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In Kenya, although freedom of the media is guaranteed in the Constitution, there are several Acts of Parliament that duplicate the roles of different agencies.

For example, while the Media Act 2013 gives the Media Council of Kenya powers to regulate the industry with an established independent complaints commission to handle complaints against journalists, the Kenya Information and Communication Amendment Act establishes a tribunal that has the powers to impose fines on journalists and media houses, who are found guilty.

In addition, some clauses in the National Security Service Act 2014, and the Media Authority Act 2013 clearly limit press freedom and freedom of expression. Article 12 of the Act states that a person who publishes, broadcasts or causes to be published or distributed, through print, digital or electronic means, insulting, threatening, or inciting material or images of dead or injured persons which are likely to cause fear and alarm to the general public or disturb public peace is liable to a fine not exceeding $48,543 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or both.

Human Rights Watch and Article 19 which defends freedom of expression and information recently produced a report detailing how Kenyan authorities have committed a range of abuses against journalists reporting on sensitive issues.
The two organisations documented 16 incidents of direct death threats against journalists and bloggers across the country in recent years, and cases in which police arbitrarily arrested, detained and later released without charge at least 14 journalists and bloggers.

Uganda

In Uganda, freedom of expression and the press is constitutionally guaranteed under Article 29 which in section 1(b) states that “freedom of speech and expression shall include freedom of the press and other media.” These are operationalised under the Press and Journalism Act and Electronic Media Act.

However, Uganda has criminal defamation on the law books, even while the African Court on Human and People’s Rights has previously ruled that imprisonment over defamation violates freedom of expression.

The legal regime is replete with restrictions including criminal defamation and sedition that remain on the law books, notably the Penal Code Act.

Laws like the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 holds journalists criminally liable if they are found communicating with a terrorist or terrorist organisation. Journalists could also fall foul of the law for among others “promoting terrorism” purely because of their work.

This law, in addition to others like the Offensive Communications which was passed under the Computer Misuse Act are used by police to harass journalists and editors. Other laws that are a threat to the media include the Anti-Pornography Act, which carry penalties for publishers.

Since the scuffle in parliament late September over the age limit for the president that was broadcast live, the Uganda Communications Commission has closed a radio station in Kanungu district in the western part of the country, which was considered against the age-limit amendment, citing minimum broadcasting standards.

ALSO READ: Uganda bans live coverage of Parliament

Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ)-Uganda says UCC cites minimum broadcasting standards but does not follow due process, and that it over-steps its mandate when it asks media houses to suspend staff.

Tanzania

In Tanzania, the Media Services Act 2016 that was signed by President John Magufuli early this year, gives the government more powers to interrogate journalists.

Section 60 gives the Information Minister the power to implement the Media Services Act 2016 without further consultation with lawyers and other media stakeholders.

Section 55 of the Act also gives the minister full powers to ban any publication or newspaper that prints information thought to affect the national security and public health.

READ: Tanzanian govt bans fourth newspaper

Section 52 and 50 (2) provides a penalty of three to five years in prison or a fine of between $2,250 and $7,500 for intentionally publishing information that threatens national security, public safety, public order, the country’s economic interests, public morality or public health, or that injures the reputation, rights and freedom of other persons.

Furthermore, the law warns anyone who imports media material or publishes it, could be jailed for between five and 10 years, or pay a fine of between $3,600 and $9,000.

By Dicta Asiimwe, Eric Oduor, Christopher Kidanka and Fred Oluoch.

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