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Gagged journalists march in Kenya to protest new law

Hundreds of journalists marched silently through Kenya's capital Wednesday to protest a proposed law that would allow courts to compel reporters to reveal their sources.

Hundreds of journalists wearing gags marched silently through Kenya's capital Wednesday to protest a proposed law that would allow courts to compel reporters to reveal their sources.

Kenyan journalists wear gags during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya, on Wednesday. ((Karel Prinsloo/Associated Press))

Several radio stations aired music or talk shows instead of morning news broadcaststo protestthe bill, which an international media rights watchdog said would be "disastrous" for democracy.

"Gagging the media is the first sign of a dictatorship," said Macharia Gaitho, an editor with the local The Nation newspaper. "The media is the voice of society and it cannot be silenced."

The bill was intended to create an independent media council to arbitrate complaints against the press. But, just before the National Assembly voted to approve the law more than a week ago, a lawmaker added a clause giving the courts the power to force journalists to reveal the identities of unnamed individuals quoted in their stories.

Wednesday's protestersmarched from Nairobi's Uhuru Park to Attorney General Amos Wako's office, where they asked Wako, as the government's chief legal adviser, to advise President Mwai Kibaki not to sign the law.

Wako said Tuesday he would advise Kibaki to refer the bill back to the National Assembly "for reconsideration."

Four opposition lawmakers are challenging the proposed law in court.

Robert Menard, of the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders, said the proposed law would have "disastrous consequences" for Kenyan democracy because forcing journalists to reveal sources would mean "a key component of the democratic checks and balances is destroyed."

Kenya is considered to have some of the best-developed and liveliest media in Africa.

Journalists using anonymous sources have exposed some of the country's biggest scandals, such as the Goldenberg affair, in which the government was swindled out of millions of dollars in fictitious gold and gem exports during the 1990s.

The lawmaker who proposed the amendment argued that journalists often defame prominent people by not naming them but describing them enough to allow them to be identified.

Last year, armed police raided the Nairobi offices of The Standard and broadcaster KTN, damaging equipment and burning newspapers. The government has acknowledged responsibility for the raids, but never explained why it ordered them.

It was the most dramatic attack on the media since independence in 1963.

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