Kenyan members of parliament late on Thursday voted to pass a new law that empowers the government to form a powerful tribunal to draw up a code of conduct for the media. (Agencies)
In an African region where several nations tightly control news-gathering, Kenya's media has enjoyed broad freedoms to criticize successive governments.
Journalists said the aim of the new rules was to stop investigative reports on corruption or that hold the government to account.
A leading newspaper in east Africa, wrote: "Dark days: MPs pass law to control media." Another paper wrote: "Democracy under attack".
The government said the bill was still open for discussion.
"Freedom of the press is not under attack in Kenya," information secretary Fred Matiangi told a TV channel.
Under the Kenya Information and Communication Bill, violating the code could lead fines for an individual of up to 1 million shillings (USD 11,700) or 20 million shillings for media outlets.
Although details of the code are to be outlined, the bill proposes that locally produced content, including advertising, on Kenyan television stations be not less than 45 percent. Media executives worried the move could hurt revenue earned from foreign advertising.
Under the bill, the government could recover unpaid fines direct from bank accounts of individuals or companies. The tribunal could also recommend suspending or removing an individual from the journalists' register for breaking the code.
The new bill could become law if signed by President Uhuru Kenyatta, who last week implored journalists to report more responsibly especially over security matters.
Former Prime Minister and Kenyatta's defeated rival for the presidency, Raila Odinga, criticised the proposed law.
"Laws like the one passed today are only found in our neighbouring dictatorships. It is my hope that we are not trying to copy and paste the draconian laws of our neighbours, though I fear we may be," Odinga said in a statement.
Rights activists say the media in Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda are tightly controlled by the state authorities.
Kenyatta, who faces a trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court that starts in February, last week warned the media to be responsible in their reporting, citing what he called some "reckless" reporting.
The president backed Inspector General of police David Kimaiyo who accused local media of "unpatriotic" reporting of an attack on a Nairobi mall that killed at least 67 people.
Kimaiyo had earlier summoned two journalists and a media executive at a TV station for running CCTV footage of the mall raid, but later dropped the action after a public outcry.
Officials had criticised Kenyan media for reporting that soldiers looted Westgate mall during the four-day stand-off. But this week admitted there were some cases of theft by soldiers.
Kenyan members of parliament late on Thursday voted to pass a new law that empowers the government to form a powerful tribunal to draw up a code of conduct for the media.