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Social media users under threat as region cracks down on Internet freedom

By Frankline Sunday | Published Tue, December 13th 2016 at 07:10, Updated December 13th 2016 at 07:13 GMT +3

In March, blogger Ezer Kipkurui was arrested in Nakuru town after a security officer accused him of taking photos of a long queue at a Government service centre.

News of the arrest spread fast and sparked outrage online. Mr Kipkurui’s arrest was the latest in a spate of cases that had seen bloggers and social media users across the country arrested and arraigned in court on all manner of charges.

“Accusations against me were ridiculous! Changing from resisting arrest and photography to causing disturbance,” Kipkurui told his social media followers when he was released 12 hours later.

Increasing intolerance

His arrest and detention is one of the cases that has been used to illustrate Kenya’s increasing intolerance to freedom of expression online.

According to the 2016 edition of Freedom on the Net, Internet freedom in Kenya declined this year as regulators and security officials clamped down on online posts and attempted to introduce various forms of censorship.

“During the coverage period, an unprecedented number of Kenyan bloggers and social media users were arrested or summoned for questioning, mainly for their online commentary criticising government officials,” states the report in part.

“This continued a trend of silencing ordinary netizens – in addition to journalists – that began in 2014.”

The annual report by international advocacy group Freedom House points to a sustained encroachment of Kenyans’ freedoms online and attempts at censorship that have increased in tandem with the adoption of social media.

Last year, a study by Reporters without Borders stated that the introduction of new punitive legislation and rising Government control was curtailing Kenya’s media freedom.

The Government’s response to investigative media coverage of the Westgate terrorism attack by television station KTN and international cable news channel Al Jazeera was particularly singled out as the reason the country slipped 19 places in press freedom between 2013 and 2014 to sit at 90th out of 190 nations.

This year, that ranking dropped further to 95.

Reporters without Borders states that Kenya registered one of the largest declines in Africa and ranked alongside strife-torn countries like Mali, the Central African Republic and Burundi.

Key among the blows to the country’s press freedom was the passing by Parliament of the draconian Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Bill, 2014.

Some of the contentious clauses that were later deleted after an outcry from the media and civil society included a Sh500,000 fine and jail term for journalists who publish reports deemed to be defamatory to Parliament.

Witnesses summoned to testify before House committees who fail to appear would also have been required to pay a fine of up to Sh500,000.

This year, Government regulators and departments led the affront against freedom of expression online, with the Kenya Film and Classification Board (KFCB) at the forefront.

Earlier in the year, KFCB unsuccessfully took on over-the-top providers, first by attempting to have Google remove a video from YouTube, which Google declined and referred the regulator to its head offices in the United States.

KFCB’s head Ezekiel Mutua then turned his guns on popular video streaming service Netflix, which had just launched its service in Kenya with equally futile results.

Content censorship

Attempts by Mr Mutua to have Netflix adhere to KFCB’s administrative regime were thwarted, including by the ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru who said it was not the Government’s place to regulate over-the-top providers.

In October, KFCB made another attempt to introduce more censorship of content by tabling the Film, Stage Plays and Publication Bill 2016.

The Bill proposed that media, film and literary content creators seek clearance from a new entity with the power to issue and deny production permits at its discretion.

KFCB was again forced to beat a hasty retreat after industry stakeholders poked holes at and eventually shot down the Bill at a public hearing.

And then for several months in 2015 and 2016, operations at Kenya’s leading ICT sector regulator, the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) stalled as opposite factions of a split board accused each other of rent seeking.

Although a new board was appointed and installed in May this year, multiple court cases against the previous and current administration are still pending.

The country’s growing intolerance to digital freedoms comes at a time when freedom of expression around the world is facing its greatest threat yet.

In 2013, former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden revealed intelligence agencies in the US and Britain were working with technology and social media companies to carry out large-scale surveillance and data harvesting on their citizens.

Internet freedom campaigners around the world now warn that developing countries are borrowing a leaf from their more developed counterparts and acquiring powerful surveillance and monitoring systems to spy on their citizens.

The systems that have reportedly been deployed in several countries have the ability to carry out invasive monitoring of most Internet-based systems and applications, as well as effect country-wide shutdowns.

Early this month, The Gambia banned the Internet countrywide.

It followed in the steps of other African countries, including Uganda, Zimbabwe, Gabon, Ethiopia and Eritrea, that have done a similar thing year, separating millions of users from their sources of information.

Kenya has been listed as one of the countries where the Government has acquired modern surveillance equipment that can reportedly be used to monitor the communication of persons of interest.

Technology research firm Citizen Lab last year claimed the country’s National Intelligence Service is one of the customers that have acquired FinFisher, a sophisticated computer spyware.

Made by a German technology firm, FinFisher is sold exclusively to governments and law enforcement agencies as a crime prevention tool.

However, the software has been used in the past to monitor journalists and activists in several countries, including Syria, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Uganda.

Disabling features

“In a new development, the most routinely targeted tools this year were instant messaging and calling platforms, with restrictions often imposed during times of protests or due to national security concerns,” said Freedom House in its report.

“Governments singled out these apps for blocking due to two important features: encryption, which protects the content of users’ communications from interception, and text or audiovisual calling functions, which have eroded the business model and profit margins of traditional telecommunications companies.”

Facebook-owned free messaging and calling app WhatsApp faced the most restrictions, with 12 countries this year blocking the entire service or disabling certain features. Similar apps like Telegram, Viber, Facebook Messenger, Line, Imo, and Google Hangouts were also targeted.

Aside from intrusive surveillance and censorship, the other danger Kenyan Internet users are exposed to today is fake news, a phenomenon that has been gaining currency since last month’s election of Donald Trump as US president.

Days after his surprising election victory, it was revealed that a large portion of news consumed by Trump supporters through social media was inaccurate.

Freedom House warns that manipulated content online is a growing problem globally, with signs that Kenyan users could be falling victim. “In Kenya’s increasingly partisan environment, observers note hired bloggers and twitter bots on both sides of the political divide are increasingly crowding out diverse and independent viewpoints with partisan commentary on social media,” warned Freedom House.

The reduced cost of data and devices has allowed more people to build an online following through content creation and delivering alternative sources of news.

Further, Internet users have made some gains this year, including the High Court’s decision in April to declare Section 29 (b) of the Kenya Information and Communication Act unconstitutional.

The controversial clause stated that a person who by means of a licensed telecommunication system sends a message that he or she knows to be false for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another person commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding Sh50,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to both.

Unflattering post

Geoffrey Andare, who was charged with misuse of a communication device after he wrote an unflattering post about his MP on Facebook, had the law on his side.

In her judgement, High Court Judge Mumbi Ngugi said the section was unconstitutional for being too sweeping and subjective.

The country has also been urged to enact the Data Protection Bill 2015 to strengthen the rights of digital consumers. The Bill prescribes stiff penalties for corporates that breach users’ digital privacy.

“A person who interferes with personal data or infringes on the right of a person to privacy commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding Sh100,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or both,” states the proposed law in part.

This implies that service providers like supermarkets, mobile service providers and healthcare institutions will be compelled to handle their users’ data more carefully, and risk prosecution if they pass this data to third parties.

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