NAIROBI, Kenya, 25 September 2000 (Newsroom) -- Government plans to regulate the FM radio industry are an attempt to muzzle stations broadcasting in indigenous languages and will violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, religious and political leaders in this East African nation charge.
Kenya President Daniel arap Moi late last month ordered Attorney General Amos Wako to work with Information Minister Musalia Mudavadi to introduce a bill in Parliament that would require privately owned radio stations to broadcast only in Kiswahili and English. Both are official languages of the country, with Kiswahili used widely in commerce and elsewhere in East Africa. Many Kenyans, however, consider Kiswahili a foreign language.
The head of the Anglican Church in Kenya, Archbishop David Gitari, said the church would object to any law that curtails press freedom. He accused Moi of furthering selfish goals in seeking to control the media. "So long as the media is operating ethically, they should be free to use whatever language they want," he argued.
The proposed ban is "dictatorial in the 21st century, aimed at blocking a free press," said Mwai Kibaki, chairman of the Democratic Party.
The Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims scoffed at the government plan, with Secretary General Ahmed Khalif insisting that the airwaves are supposed to be free. The Reverend Ben Salala, an Anglican prelate from Mumias Diocese in western Kenya, said the move infringes on Kenyans' freedom of choice.
Raila Odinga, leader of the National Development Party, criticized the presidentâ€™s attempt to curb radio broadcasts, calling the move "an affront on fundamental freedoms."
Government officials contend that having a common language promotes social integration and enhances the ability to conduct business. An estimated five dozen languages are spoken in Kenya.
Some officials point to the example of Tanzania, where the late President Julius Nyerere began promoting Kiswahili as the official language to foster a united country just before independence. Tanzania has more than 100 ethnic languages.
The Kenyan government has appointed a team of experts to propose rules to govern frequency allocations in a country where radios outnumber television sets 4 to 1. With the presidential order, the committeeâ€™s recommendations likely will include a language policy that could impair stations broadcasting in indigenous languages.
Lombo Simba, managing director of Baraka FM, a private radio station that airs religious programs along the Kenyan coast, disagrees with the notion that broadcasting in indigenous languages promotes tribalism. "Tribalism has a lot more to do with the message than with the language," Simba contends, adding that national unity can be promoted more effectively through indigenous languages than the so-called national languages that people do not fully identify with.
Noting that many Kenyans have great difficulty understanding English or Kiswahili, Simba wondered whether "we are forgetting that they are Kenyans, too, and are entitled to the freedom of choice accorded to those who understand the two national languages."
There are 12 new FM stations licensed to broadcast in Kenya. Of these, five use indigenous languages. Since the government liberalized broadcast policies four years ago, more than 30 radio and 12 TV stations have been licensed.
Some political observers say that the attempt to ban indigenous languages masks a political agenda aimed at weakening potential presidential candidates in elections in 2002. The owners of several radio stations that would be affected by the ban are thought to be considering a run for the presidency.
People must be allowed to use the languages they are comfortable with and to freely discuss on the radio the issues that affect them, said Grace Githaiga, a community radio research specialist who works for EcoNews. The organization helps start local radio stations that are owned and managed by the communities they serve.
Any government policy that hurts independent radio stations would not sit well with Kenyans, especially those who have invested in their operation, said Arjun Ruzaik, Metro East managing director. His station has invested $1 million in setting up the station.
"People have invested millions in broadcasting to provide needed service to their particular audiences," Simba agreed. "A ban will sweep all that investment down the drain, at a time when Kenyans are facing one of the most difficult times in history."