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Communications Authority of Kenya’s role in elections

EXPLAINERS
By Brian Okoth | September 29th 2021

Ezra Chiloba was appointed the Director-General of the Communications Authority of Kenya on September 28, 2021. [File, Standard]

The appointment of former IEBC Chief Executive Officer Ezra Chiloba as the Director-General of the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) has generated a discussion on the role of the regulator.

The CA plays an important role in, among others, regulating political messages aired on all media platforms, including television, radio, print and digital.

The agency also plays important advisory and monitoring roles in the transmission of election results.

In a 2017 document by CA detailing the guidelines on political messages and social media content, the regulator said it relies on other laws, including the Constitution, to ensure election coverage is conducted appropriately.

CA regulates, among others, content service providers (CSPs), mobile network operators (NMOs) and mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs).

“CSPs, MNOs, and MVNOs shall strictly adhere to the laws, regulations and guidelines relating to elections and political activities, which include the Constitution, the Kenya Information and Communications Act (KICA), the National Cohesion and Integration Act (NCIA), the IEBC Act, the Media Act, the Elections Act, Penal Code and the Political Parties Act (PPA),” says the regulator.

“Failure to comply with any of these guidelines may lead to suspension of the interoperability Agreement between the MNO/MVNO and CSP pending determination by the CA and/or a Court of Law.”

This essentially means CA is the ultimate watchdog on political messaging on TV, radio, newspaper and digital platforms, and has the last word on whether a media platform’s license should be revoked for contravening the law.

According to the document, CA would be scouring media platforms and politicians’ social media pages, including Facebook and Twitter, for alarming content that needs flagging, or suspension of the author.

“Based upon CA’s mandate to protect consumer interests, and NCIC’s mandate to promote national cohesion and integration, CA in consultation with the NCIC and other relevant stakeholders including but not limited to MNOs, MVNOs, CSPs, Facebook among others, issues guidelines to prevent the transmission of undesirable political content via SMS and social media platform,” the document dated July 2017 said.

The guidelines issued touch on the process of initiating a political message, the nature of the content being sent out and the timing of the messages.

Process

“Prior to sending a political message, CSPs shall make a request to an MNO/MVNO at least 48 hours before sending the message. The application shall include as a minimum, the following information: the verbatim content of the political message; a signed authorisation letter from the political party or individual sponsoring the political message in such form as shall be approved by the Authority,” says CA.

The regulator adds that only registered parties or traceable individuals are allowed to send out bulk political messages. According to CA, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) plays an important role in vetting the message content and has the right to flag it if it is inflammatory.

“In the event and upon determination by NCIC a political message that had already been transmitted elicits an unforeseen negative reaction from the public or any other entity, the MNO/MVNO shall immediately have the right to stop transmission of the message.”

Content

CA says political messages disseminated to the public through CSPs must bear the name of the political party or individual disseminating the message.

“Political messages shall not contain offensive, abusive, insulting, misleading, confusing, obscene or profane language,” says CA, adding that the content must also be free from threats or discrimination.

The only allowed languages for political messaging are English and Swahili.

Timing

CA says political messages will only be sent out during political campaign periods announced by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

“Bulk or premium rate content shall only be sent out during the day between the hours of 08:00hrs and 17:00hrs,” says CA.

The regulator says it would personally handle complaints from the general public against CSPs, MNOs and MVNOs.

“Complaints from the general public against CSPs, MNOs and MVNOs with regards to political messages shall be settled by CA in accordance with the provisions of KICA, the Kenya Information and Communications (Dispute Resolution) Regulations, 2010 and the Kenya Information and Communications (Consumer Protection) Regulations, 2010,” says CA.

On social media, the regulator said it has the right to ask social media service providers, for instance, Facebook and Twitter, to delete or suspend accounts that are sending out inciting political messages.

“Social media service providers shall be required to pull down accounts used in disseminating undesirable political contents on their platform that have brought to their attention within 24 hours.”

Transmission of election results

Besides regulating political content that is aired on Kenya’s TV, radio, newspaper and digital platforms, CA plays a crucial role in monitoring transmission of election results by the IEBC.

For instance, in 2017, the Authority advised IEBC to fragment the country into three election results transmission zones, and each of the three mobile operators (Safaricom, Airtel and Telkom) was assigned one region to support the transmission systems of the IEBC.

“In each of the three zones, an additional mobile operator was assigned the responsibility of providing backup services in case of technology failure. In line with our oversight responsibility as the ICT sector regulator, the Authority directed the mobile operators to report any cases of transmission failure to us.

“No cases of transmission failure were reported to us,” former CA Director-General Francis Wangusi said on September 27, 2017, in a letter to the National Super Alliance (NASA), after the political outfit alleged that one of the mobile operators manipulated the presidential election results.

“ICTs have been successfully deployed and embraced in all facets of life in the country, including banking, business, education, health, agriculture and government services just but to mention a few. Elections are no exception and the Authority is confident that ICTs can be deployed successfully to support this important national activity,” added Wangusi.

On Tuesday, September 28, the Communications Authority of Kenya announced that it had appointed former IEBC Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ezra Chiloba as the Director-General, replacing Francis Wangusi who retired in August 2019.

Chiloba takes over for a renewable four-year term.

Between August 2019 and September 2021, Mercy Wanjau held the Director-General position in an acting capacity.

CA Board, led by Kembi Gitura, said Chiloba was the most-suited candidate to replace Wangusi at the helm of the regulator.

Chiloba had previously been accused of bungling the 2017 General Election, claims he vehemently denied before resigning in June 2018.

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