I “died” for a few moments in July 2014. The news of my passing on broke in the social media. For a while, my phone would not stop ringing. One person after the other called me. They wanted me to tell them whether it was true I had gone. Others only wanted to condole with me, over my tragic demise. The online reporter was cagey about the cause of my relocation to the Hereafter. As had happened earlier in May 1897 with the iconic American novelist, Mark Twain, the reports about my death were hugely exaggerated. They were also grossly misquoted.
That is what the social media does, especially in Kenya. It has “killed” numerous people out of sheer mischief and malice. Every so often, you will read “breaking news” about some prominent person who has died in a car crash, a plane crash, or just gone to the Great Beyond in sudden death. Moments later, it turns out to be untrue – fake news, as they call it. For the love of me, I have never understood the triggers and drivers of this hugely sociopathic and psychotic behaviour. I can only put it to unbridled wickedness.
It is instructive that the persons consigning me to the World Beyond in 2014 premised the report with the fact that I had been, the previous evening, on the Jeff Koinange Live (JKL) Show. As usual, I had been straight shooting. I had talked of the mountain that went in labour and only ended up giving birth to two tiny mice. I had wondered aloud about people who kicked up a fuss only to leave the audience with the disappointment of hot air. Such was the case of a Texan cowboy who had angrily screamed out that in the event his stolen horse was not returned within five minutes, he would be forced to do what he had done six years earlier. It only turned out that he had been forced to walk home. This rubbed someone the wrong way. They resorted to online malice.
The Kenyan social media is a school without standards. Anyone can sit in any class, listen to any lecture and give lectures of their own. There are no manners, no restrictions and no respect. Everyone with access to an android gadget, basic alphanumerical skills, a bit of phone credit and a lot of idle time is welcome to this school. They can write on just about anything, from egg theft in the village to rocket science. And they write about it with the insolence of the unmannered. They know everything about everybody, from the slum to State House. They know what is happening in every space where there is a bed, a mattress, or in any other space in which two people could go horizontal. They know who the occupants are and who has gone horizontal with whom – to the minutest detail. And they have no compunction in “pouring it all out” in the social forums.
It is difficult to empathize with those decrying the coming into being of the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act (2018). President Uhuru Kenyatta assented to this law on Wednesday this week. This was despite much lobbying against it. It would restrict freedom of expression, it was said. It would allow those who steal in Government the latitude to steal with impunity. It would . . . It would . . . It would God knows what else. Of course, I understand all this stuff about freedom of expression. If I were to paraphrase Paul of Tarsus, where he makes confessions about himself, I would write that I am a journalist and a publishing editor by training, examination, qualification and practice – and occasionally by reward, also. Indeed, I am also a teacher in this discipline. Yet I don’t buy the thrust of the arguments against the new Act.
Freedom is not a license for premeditated malice. Freedom also comes with responsibility. Many reputations have suffered untold damage at the hands of happy-go-lucky cyber crooks. They have cooked up sickening propaganda that passes for fact. There are professional haters, sundry idlers and assorted busybodies whose sole occupation is online malevolence. The new law will see them packed away in cold places for years, if they cannot pay up to Sh20 million in fines. A person who contrives a prurient fake image of another person and posts it online to malign the other person deserves no mercy. Indeed, so what if the image were not contrived? Why would stories of two mutually consenting adults in intimate tango be of interest to a healthy mind that has no property in the matter? Why should lurid images of such persons in salacious activities be flaunted in public? What is the object of child pornography?
Purveyors of such stuff are only too quick to invoke the right to freedom of expression. Yet, do they ever consider the rights of affected innocent persons? When you maliciously fake someone’s death because you hate them, do you consider how this will affect the friends and relatives? Nude pictures of some lady – real or fake – will reach the children and other persons who suffer injury by association. Do they also have rights before the law?
My three and a half decades in journalism have mostly been critical of the kind of things they do in Government. I have never considered it my role to sing praises and allied psalms to the State. Those meant for such roles are there. Yet, I must whole-heartedly welcome the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act. It will throw cyber thugs and mischief-makers off the highway. Those who hide behind the ignominy of anonymity must be unmasked to face the law. The right not to be humiliated and the right to privacy are constitutional rights, just like the right to free expression. We must find a balance. This law does it.
-The writer is a public communications adviser. [email protected]