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Human Rights Watch today condemned Kenya’s parliament for passing a new law aimed at government control of newspapers. The new law imposes exorbitant publishing fees that could handicap newspapers economically and silence new voices. Human Rights Watch urged President Daniel arap Moi not to sign the law into effect.

The new law appears to be designed to mute public criticism in the run-up to national elections to be held by the end of this year. President Moi is stepping down after two decades in office, and the country’s constitution is under review.

“This measure could muzzle the press in a critical election year,”said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “Freedom of expression has never been more important in Kenya.”

Current Kenyan law already constricts publishers by requiring them to register with the government, pay a libel insurance bond, and submit copies of every publication to a government registrar. The new law passed by Parliament is an amendment to the Books and Newspapers Act and raises that bond amount one hundredfold, from US$128 to US$12,800. The law also penalizes vendors and distributors who don’t establish whether publishers of every publication they sell have registered and paid up. Penalties for a first offense include fines up to $12,800, three years in jail, or both.

“In effect, these fees could curb the right to freedom of expression,” said Takirambudde. “And that right is enshrined in international law and Kenya’s own constitution.”

The measure is an attempt to eradicate a proliferating “gutter press,” according to the government. But critics claim politicians are trying to cushion themselves from embarrassing revelations before the election. Journalists and media owners, who insist they can clean up the industry on their own, have drafted a code of ethics and are forming a regulatory council.

The latest media law follows a recent series of defamation and libel cases against newspapers and bookstores, in which high government officials, including President Moi, have won record damages.

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