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State officials risk Sh1m fine, jail for blocking social media users

By Frankline Sunday | January 28th 2020
By Frankline Sunday | January 28th 2020

State officials and entities that block Kenyans on social media are breaking the law and risk being fined up to Sh1 million or imprisoned for three years or both.

According to the Commission for Administrative Justice, the use of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook by government officials and State departments to communicate public information requires them to provide full access to all Kenyans as is the norm with public services.

Blocking certain users is a violation of the Access to Information Act 2016 as it denies citizens the right to access public information.

“This issue relates to access to information,” said the Office of the Ombudsman last month.

“The various institutions use social media to publish and share public information hence no user should be blocked for asking questions.”

The Office of the Ombudsman was responding to questions from Kenyans on Twitter, who questioned why they were being blocked by the State-owned electricity distributor, Kenya Power.

“As usual I’m complaining again about Kenya Power’s poor customer service,” posted one user identified as Chris.

“This time, however, I can’t contact them because I just realised they blocked me on Twitter,” he said posting a screenshot indicating he has been blocked from following the company account on Twitter or viewing its tweets.

“Users should not be blocked by public entities since it denies them from accessing information posted on the platforms,” tweeted the Office of the Ombudsman in response.

Section 4 of the Access to Information Act 2016 says every citizen has the right of access to information held by the State or another person, and where that information is required for the exercise or protection of any right or fundamental freedom.

“Subject to this Act, every citizen’s right to access information is not affected by any reason the person gives for seeking access or the public entity’s belief as to what are the person’s reasons for seeking access,” explains the Act in part.

“Any person who knowingly discloses exempt information in contravention of this Act commits an offence and is liable, on conviction, to a fine not exceeding one million shillings, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or both,” states the Act.

Over the years, public officials and institutions have taken to platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to post information and respond to queries from Kenyans.

Entities such as the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, Kenya Police, Kenya Power, and State House are just a few of the dozens of public accounts on social media with active online engagement with users.

Kenya Power, for example, has more than 900,000 followers on its main account @KenyaPower_Care that has sent out more than 1.5 million tweets since 2010.

@StateHouseKenya, the official twitter account for the Presidency has more than 870,000 followers and regularly sends out information on the President’s official events and briefings.

Most State officers, including cabinet secretaries, members of the National Assembly, Governors and Senators run active social media accounts to engage with the public.

In recent years, however, there have been numerous cases where public officials have blocked users for various reasons. Robert Alai, a blogger and Twitter user with 1.3 million followers last month called out Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia for blocking him on Twitter.

Several users have also called out Deputy President William Ruto for blocking them on Twitter, with some complaints dating back five years ago.

Public accounts

According to the Ombudsman, in cases where users are blocked because of abusive language or harassment directed at public accounts, the institution should revert to other laws to handle the cases.   

“If the institution has evidence to show that a user has posted inappropriate information, then there are other laws to deal with that,” states the Ombudsman.

“Blocking a user denies them access to information shared on those platforms which are public information.”

This puts public officials who engage in heated debates with social media users in a tight spot as they have little control in shutting out users critical of their message or policies.  

Last year, a federal court in New York ruled that it was illegal for President Trump to block critics from his social media accounts.

The court found that Trump violated the First Amendment – equivalent to Kenya’s Access to Information Act, 2016 -  by blocking users since he used the platform to conduct official business.

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