A Litmus Test for Kenya

Nine months is not a long time. Yet within that brief span, fundamental principles of democracy and press freedom have twice been tested in Kenya.

In January, at the midnight hour of its final session before a general election, the nation’s Parliament awarded its members an offensively golden farewell handshake. In a country where the average worker makes $5 a day, Kenya’s lawmakers granted themselves a $107,000 retirement bonus plus perks — an armed guard for life, a diplomatic passport, guaranteed access to airport V.I.P. lounges and (with an eye to the future) a state funeral.

A nation-wide furor erupted, led by the country’s robustly independent media — prompting then-President Mwai Kibaki to veto the bill as “unaffordable and unconstitutional.” Chalk up a win for press freedom.

Now comes a bigger test. Late last month, again in the dark of night, Parliament passed a draconian new media law that, critics say, amounts to a gag order on Kenya’s Fourth Estate. The legislation would levy heavy fines as high as 20 million shillings (more than $200,000 ) on journalists and news organizations deemed to be “irresponsible” in their reporting — a short-hand for stories that disrespect public institutions, including cabinet ministers as well as the national army and police. It would create an all-powerful Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal to handle complaints, whose members would be appointed by the government and be vested with authority to ban individual reporters and freeze the financial accounts of media houses judged to be in breach of a new (and far tamer) journalistic code of conduct.

The proximate cause of Parliament’s displeasure was the Kenyan media’s reporting of the September terrorist attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi. At the end of a four-day shoot-out, news reports supported by closed-circuit TV footage emerged suggesting that elements of the police or army had, in fact, engaged in an apparently massive looting spree. Angry police and military commanders considered themselves to have been libeled; outraged lawmakers agreed, and the new media law was born.

As in January, a national media storm is in full-blow. News headlines sound variations on a theme: “Dark Days” … “Death Knell for Freedom of Press” … “Bill Puts the Country in Same Ranks with Iran, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Ethiopia.”

Opposition leaders denounced the legislation as the most repressive in the country’s 50-year history. In recent days, even lawmakers favoring the legislation conceded that it must be reconsidered. The information minister ultimately responsible for enforcing it claims that Parliament “kept him in the dark,” and that lawmakers consulted no one but themselves.

True or not, the ball is now with President Uhuru Kenyatta. A sensible man with an expansive world view, he denies through a spokesman that his government has any intention of trying to muzzle the media, even as he preaches a creed of journalistic social responsibility. If the legislation needs to be amended, he says, it will be sent back to Parliament. Whether it would be tinkered with or tossed out entirely remains to be seen. Already, media owners and civil society groups promise to challenge its constitutionality before Kenya’s Supreme Court.

The larger question, however, is whether the damage can be undone. Kenyans tend to see such events through their own political lens, isolated from the world. Once upon a time, they could do so without great consequence. Today, that is dangerous. Kenya is the jewel in the crown of Africa’s fast-emerging economies of the future. And lately, there have been too many incidents that jeopardize that newly global standing.

Simply put, the country is undergoing three geopolitical litmus tests. The first is Westgate and its aftermath. At the beginning, the international community sprung to Kenya’s side. All understood the provenance of the attack as the price of Kenya’s stand against Al Shabab militants in neighboring Somalia. But evidence of looting shifted that narrative, and the focus now is the government’s handling of the affair and a loss of public faith. Much as some might wish it, a media crack-down will not cover-up a whitewash.

At the same time, the international community is waiting to see how Kenya handles the ongoing case at the International Criminal Court. Will Mr. Kenyatta appear for his scheduled trial, or not? The world will be watching.

Controversy over the new media law could become the third wave in Kenya’s perfect geopolitical storm. Few issues arouse more international attention than media freedom. Almost everywhere, it is considered a key human right and a foundational building block for democracy. For Kenya to retreat from media freedom is, in many ways, to retreat from the modern community of nations.

Vetoing Parliament’s budget-busting pay hikes last January, former President Kibaki sent a clear message to the Kenyan people: Their protests were heard; there are limits to parliamentary license and core principles that cannot be compromised. Now is the moment for Uhuru Kenyatta to take a similarly principled stand.

Michael Meyer, a former communications director for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, is dean of the graduate school of media and communications at Aga Khan University in Nairobi.

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