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By Agwanda Saye
Regional lawyers will meet over the sweeping wave of oppressive media laws in East Africa.
The East Africa Law Society (EALS) President Mr. James Aggrey Mwamu said that Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Somalia have adopted a pattern of media suppression.
“Governments in the region are jointly suppressing democratic freedoms by using unconstitutional laws to gag journalists the media,” Mr. Mwamu said.
Mr. Mwamu said that media freedom will be among the core subjects to be discussed in depth at the EALS Annual Conference set for November 15th and 16th at The Whitesands Hotel in Mombasa.
The Conference will bring together practicing lawyers from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. The theme is Raising the Bar: The Changing Environment for the Legal Profession in East Africa.
“We are dismayed that the Kenyan Parliament last week passed into law Acts which suppress freedom of information under Article 35 of the Constitution,” Mr. Mwamu said.
The EALS President regretted that intolerance to media freedom has also intensified in Tanzania with the recent suspension of two newspapers for alleged violation of stringent media laws.
“The Ministry of Information stopped the publication of Mwananchi newspaper and Mtanzania, alleging violation of secrecy and sedition laws,” Mr. Mwamu said.
The EALS President also recalled how The Daily Monitor newspaper was raided and shut down for 10 days in May after allegedly publishing a politically sensitive story in Uganda.
“The Daily Monitor was allowed to reopen on the promise that it would not publish material that might disturb law and order or generate tensions,” Mr. Mwamu said.
The EALS President also regretted that journalists are also reportedly being harassed and intimidated in Uganda when covering political stories like arrests of Mr. Kizza Besigye.
“There are also concerns on violent deaths of journalists, such as that of Thomas Pere in June,” Mr. Mwamu said.
The EALS President said that Burundi President Mr. Pierre Nkurunziza is about to sign into law a media Bill recently passed by the Burundi National Assembly in April.
“The Burundi Senate passed a draft media law despite opposition from journalists and the international community,” Mr. Mwamu said.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the new law would interfere with media independence by forcing journalists to disclose sources and imposing minimum requirements for journalists’ education and experience.
Under the proposed bill, journalists will be required to have at least two years of professional experience in addition to a university-level degree.
Additionally, the media will be banned from covering “sensitive” issues including public security, national defense, and the economy.
The new law repeals many of the provisions for jail terms imposed on violators under the 2003 law, but violations still carry penalties such as steep fines that HRW said most Burundian media outlets would not be able to afford.