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Published: Friday, 6/3/2005

FOIA for Kenya

KENYAN President Mwai Kibaki has promised to see to it that his country has a freedom of information act. If his proposal becomes law, and a newly invigorated press uses it to investigate his administration, it will be interesting to see if he still supports the idea. Nevertheless, Mr. Kibaki can't back away from support for such a law now because he endorsed it in front of journalists from all over the world who were recently in Nairobi, Kenya's capital, for the International Press Institute World Congress.

Mr. Kibaki certainly has a good idea of the importance of freedom of the press. But any American politician could tell him he made a mistake by first offering to back the proposal and then telling journalists to take a kind view of his government. The president made such double-talk at the opening session of the IPI congress.

Hosting the IPI gathering was a coup for the West African nation, home to 34 million people. It's difficult to imagine a more high-profile media audience, as the group includes more than 115 nations. That alone should make it hard for Mr. Kibaki to go back on his word.

Mr. Kibaki also is perceptive enough to know that the press must act "responsibly for the good of the press and the general public." He has a point, given Newsweek's recent embarrassing retraction about the Koran being flushed down the toilet. However, it is not clear just what he means by "establishing necessary safeguards to ensure" those freedoms, and that raises concerns. Journalists merely doing their jobs are too often the target of unhappy people. Already this year 25 reporters have been killed, and the total has risen steadily since 2002, when 54 reporters were killed. In 2003, 64 were killed, and last year, the toll was 78 reporters.

And while Kenya's president supports press freedom, he has some work to do at home. On the eve of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, ironically enough, first lady Lucy Kibaki assaulted a cameraman in a protest of media coverage about her family because she viewed the report as unfair.

But if the president's proposal becomes law, then ordinary Kenyans will be able to obtain access to official records. If that happens, it will make Kenya one of the most open information societies in Africa, and there isn't anything at all bad to say about that.



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