Opinion: We have come so far to fall back on free media

President Uhuru Kenyatta

President Uhuru Kenyatta has assented to a punitive law that would, by all likelihood, roll back gains made in the nurture of democracy and freedom of expression.

 The controversial Computer Misuse and Cyber-crimes Act, 2018, which puts Kenya in the same league with some 60 countries that have criminalised ‘fake news,’ threatens to derail the gains for whose realisation saw patriotic Kenyans shed blood and even lost lives. These are gains we must guard jealously to ensure future progress and freedom of thought.

Public discourses with far-reaching impacts such as those we have seen online among the so-called Kenyans on Twitter (KoT), might as well be history, following the enactment of the law.

 The daring investigative journalism that has brought to the fore the extent of rot at numerous State corporations - from the Goldenberg scandal, through Anglo-Leasing to the NYS heist - might as well be an appendage in Kenyan media’s short history.

This law must never be allowed to remain, at least not as it is. We appreciate the timeliness of this statute. In the digital era, where people are ‘killed’ with a simple Tweet, there is an urgent need for sanity.

It is not lost on this publication that many individuals have been the subject of a torrential outpour of falsehoods which have torn into their reputations and privacy.

Truth, as they say, has struggled to catch up with rumours and innuendos spewed online.  

Twitter has been the most notorious, with recent research showing that five in 10 Twitter users don’t bother to check info tweeted during a natural disaster before sharing it.

 Even worse, most of these people don’t bother to clarify or delete these fake news after they have been debunked, the study showed. This is unfortunate, and it must be stopped. However, the solution does not lie in over-criminalisation, but proper education.

As Media Council of Kenya Deputy CEO Victor Bwire, avers, people must be made to understand the impact of using these latest online-based platforms. “People should be educated on the impacts of the new digital platforms,” he said.

Making laws around channels such as Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is not the solution. Further, by criminalising access of “protected computer system,” the law hides behind vague and open-ended functions in protecting Kenya’s “international relations” or “public safety” to reach a conclusion of culpability, in Article 19.

Not only are these offenses broad and vague, the punishment is also too harsh. Those found guilty of spreading fake news will be liable to a fine of Sh5 million or spend three years behind bars.

Cyber-bullies and cyber stalkers will spend 10 years in prison if they can’t raise a hefty fine of Sh20 million. Computer fraud will leave the victim Sh20 million poorer or spend a decade in jail. Child pornographers will be hit with a fine of Sh20 million or spend 25 years in jail. 

The Computer Misuse and Cyber-crimes Act will also criminalise illegal devices and access codes, hitting the perpetrators with a fine of Sh5 million or three years in jail. All indications are that the first victims of this legislation will be minorities, political oppositions, civil society and academics.

The law will also have a huge impact in the operation of media, especially investigative journalism which has been a bastion of accountability in a society where some people in public offices seek self-aggrandisement.   

You do not have to be a lawyer to understand that some of the provisions in the Act are chillingly unconstitutional.

For example, requiring Internet providers to give out information that the authorities suspect will help them find victim of espionage, without getting the permission of the courts, is an affront on people’s right to privacy.

 Any attempt to stifle freedom of expression and an independent media will be an attempt to return Kenya to the dark old days.