TikTok takes fight to block Kenya ban to Parliament

TikTok Public Policy and Goverment Ralations Director Fortune Mgwili Sibanda and Majorel Kenya CEO Sven De Cauter when they appeared before the National Assembly Public Petition Committee over regulations of TikTok from South Africa at Parliament on April 9, 2024. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Popular social media platform Tiktok on Tuesday put up a spirited defence in Kenya’s Parliament as it sought to convince legislators to reject a petition to ban it in the country. 

The company’s senior officials for its operation in sub-Saharan Africa told lawmakers that it has prioritised the safety of users on the app but also noted a ban would infringe on the constitutional rights of Kenyans.

They also said the platform is aligned with the government’s creative economy agenda that holds promise to partly address the challenge of unemployment in the country. 

There has been discontent among some Kenyans over what they say is inappropriate content posted on TikTok by young Kenyans. In August 2023, a petition to ban TikTok in Kenya was tabled in the National Assembly.

Popular platform

The petition, which had been presented to Parliament earlier in April by Ben Ndolo, noted that the popular platform has been promoting violence, explicit sexual content, hate speech, vulgar language and offensive behaviour.

The petition also noted TikTok failed to remove inappropriate and offensive content and that it violates the privacy rights of children and also sharing users’ data with third parties without consent.

In March this year, Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki told Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee that the government was still looking into the risks and benefits of the platform before deciding on whether to ban it.

He, however, said the government has expressed its displeasure with the nature of the content on TikTok and also queried the extent of its compliance with Kenyan laws. He added that the State had written to its management.

This week, TikTok’s Head of Public Policy and Government Relations for sub-Saharan Africa Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda told the Public Petitions Committee that the platform is doing more good than harm. 

He noted that the platform is at the core of Kenya’s creative economy, which is a pet project of President Wiliam Ruto, who has severally noted the huge potential that the creative sector has in creating employment.

“The digital creative industry has emerged as one of the fastest-growing sectors in the Kenyan economy. This serves not only as a source of employment but also as a catalyst for national cohesion,” said Mr Sibanda.

“A ban on TikTok would hinder the progress of such causes, as we believe TikTok plays a key role in surfacing local Kenyan talent and exporting it to global audiences.”

He also said banning TikTok and other similar sites and platforms would infringe on the constitutional rights of Kenyans.

“Freedom of expression is a right that is guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic, and open, robust debates such as those you would see online are part of the lifeblood of democracy,” he said.  “Shutting down those spaces would be tantamount to silencing citizens and denying them of their Constitutional rights.” After the petition was tabled in parliament, the local tech industry protested, arguing that banning the platform was unconstitutional. 

“While we note the salient issues concerning TikTok’s content moderation practices that have led to the spread of hate and disinformation on the platform – particularly around important political events and minorities at risk — we also express our strong opposition to the proposed ban of TikTok in Kenya,” said a joint statement signed by among others Kictanet, the ICT stakeholder platform, the Kenya Human Rights Commission, the Bloggers Association of Kenya and Article 19 of Eastern Africa.

They urged Parliament instead to adopt a holistic and human rights approach to protecting Kenyans’ rights while addressing legitimate concerns on social media use. They also challenged TikTok to invest in content moderation and empower users to protect themselves from harmful content. 

More than a billion people use the platform globally.

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