How The Assembly and Demonstration Bill Affects The Right To Peaceful Assembly

The Assembly and Demonstration Bill of 2024 is a proposed piece of legislation aimed at regulating public assemblies, demonstrations and picketing. Mbeere North MP Geoffrey Ruku introduced the Bill in parliament last week as demonstrations took place across the country against the Finance Bill of 2024. While Article 37 of the Kenyan Constitution guarantees the right to assemble, demonstrate and picket peacefully, this proposed legislation looks to give the government a lot of power to control and if need be to suppress public protests that they are not comfortable with.

The following are some important points found in the Bill:

  • Advance Notice and Permits: Organizers of demonstrations are required to notify police three days in advance and obtain written permits. The notice must include full names, physical addresses and details of a demonstration’s routes and objectives.
  • Police Powers and Conditions: The Police are granted authority to impose conditions on the conduct of assemblies and demonstrations to ensure public order and safety. They can also prevent participants from deviating from specified routes and restrict gatherings to designated areas to avoid interference with vehicular and pedestrian traffic.
  • Prohibitions and Requirements: The bill prohibits demonstrators from inciting hatred, wearing masks or disguises, carrying offensive weapons, or wearing apparel that resembles the uniforms of security forces. Demonstrators must be fully identifiable to law enforcement officers.
  • Penalties: Violating the provisions found in the Bill can result in fines of up to KES 100,000 or imprisonment of up to one year. Organizers can also be held liable for damages caused during the demonstration if they didn’t take reasonable steps to prevent such acts.
  • Marshalls and Maintenance of Order: Organizers are required to appoint marshalls to maintain order during demonstrations. The Police may be present to assist in ensuring that the demonstration proceeds peacefully.

Critics of the Bill point out the following key points of contention.

  • Article 37 of the Constitution: This article guarantees that every Kenyan has the right to assemble, demonstrate, picket, and present petitions to public authorities peacefully and unarmed. Critics argue that the bill introduces restrictions  that could infringe upon this right by imposing advance notice requirements, permit obligations, and stringent conditions on demonstrations.
  • Restrictions on Demonstrations: The bill’s provisions against wearing masks, carrying banners or placards that could incite hatred, and the need for demonstrators to be fully identifiable are seen by critics as being potentially limiting to the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest. These restrictions could be viewed as being overly broad and they could potentially be used to suppress legitimate dissent.
  • Police Powers: The bill grants significant discretionary power to the police, including the ability to impose conditions on the timing, location and manner of demonstrations. The police can also prevent or disperse gatherings they deem to be violating these conditions. Critics of the bill argue that this could lead to arbitrary enforcement and suppression of protests, undermining the constitutional protection of peaceful assembly.
  • Liability for Damages: Holding organizers liable for damages caused during demonstrations, unless they can prove they took all reasonable steps to prevent such acts, could discourage the exercise of the right to assemble due to the fear of legal and financial repercussions.

While the Bill seeks to regulate assemblies and ensure public order, many of its provisions could be seen as potentially infringing on constitutional rights. If this bill was meant to “give teeth” to article 37 of the Constitution, then it cannot go against the spirit of the same. Many legal experts and human rights advocates feel that the bill in its current form leans heavily towards restriction. They feel that this could be considered as an attempt to rollback democratic freedoms enjoyed by Kenyans especially given the current public discontent over the Finance Bill of 2024.

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