Is Kenya Putting the Chill on Internet Freedoms?

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By Juliet Nanfuka |

The rights of Kenya’s digital citizens are fast shrinking in the face of new restrictive laws and increased arraignment of individuals for expressing online opinions which authorities deem in breach of the law.

The Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014, assented to by President Uhuru Kenyatta last December, allows blanket admissibility in court of electronic messages and digital material regardless of whether it is not in its original form.

It is feared that retrogressive provisions in this law could be used to put the chill on internet freedoms in East Africa’s most connected country where mobile phone penetration stands at 80% and internet access at 50% of the population.

Part V of the new security law regarding “special operations” has raised particular concerns, as it expands the surveillance capabilities of the Kenyan intelligence and law enforcement agencies without sufficient procedural safeguards.

It gives broad powers to the Director General of the National Intelligence Service to authorise any officer of the Service to monitor communications, “obtain any information, material, record, document or thing” and “to take all necessary action, within the law, to preserve national security.”

In addition, the amendments also contain unclear procedural safeguards especially in the interception of communications by “National Security Organs” for the purposes of detecting or disrupting acts of terrorism.

Even though there is a provision for a warrant to be issued by a court of law, the broad definition of ‘national security’ leaves no room for restrictions on the extent of power the law grants to National Intelligence Service when it comes to accessing personal data, information and communications.

In February 2015, the Kenya High Court struck some clauses from the security law. The government says it may appeal.

Government says the new law is necessary to fight al Shabaab militants who have repeatedly rocked the country with fatal attacks such as the Westgate shopping centre attack on September 21, 2013, which left 67 people dead. Human rights activists blame President Kenyatta’s government for steadily shrinking the space for civil actors, a pattern they say was manifested in the Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) Act 2013 and the Media Council Act 2013. These laws, they say, placed restrictions on media freedom and general freedom of expression.

The proposed Cybercrime and Computer related Crimes Bill (2014) also falls short of constitutional guarantees as it is contains “broad” speech offences with potentially chilling effects on free speech. See a full legal analysis of the Bill by Article 19. Proposed regulations to the law governing non-government organisations, which cap the funds received from foreigners at 15% of their overall budgets, have also been criticised as aimed to curtail and control the activities of civic groups engaged in governance and human rights work.

Over the 2012-2013 election period, several individuals were charged in court over their online communications. The National Cohesion and Integration Act of 2008 has been used to charge many for promoting hate speech – which some Kenyan citizens found justifiable given the role that hate speech played in the 2007 to 2008 post-election violence.

Hate Speech is defined by the 2008 Act as speech that is “threatening, abusive or insulting or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words” with the intention to stir up ethnic hatred or a likelihood that ethnic hatred will be stirred up. Authorities, however, seem to be shifting gear and using this charge among others against online journalists and bloggers that criticise the Kenyatta government.

In December 2014, blogger Robert Alai was arrested and charged with undermining the authority of a public officer contrary to Section 132 of the Penal Code by allegedly calling President Kenyatta an “adolescent president” in a blog. He was again arrested in February 2015 for offending a businessman online by linking him to a land saga that involved the illegal acquisition of the Langata Primary School playground.

Meanwhile, Allan Wadi – a student – was also arrested for “hate speech” and jailed in January 2015 for posting negative comments on Facebook about the president. In the same month, journalist Abraham Mutai was arrested following tweets he posted on corruption in the Isiolo County Government. He was charged with the “misuse of a licensed communication platform to cause anxiety.”

Nancy Mbindalah, an intern with the department of finance at the Embu County Government, was charged on similar grounds for social media posts dating as far back as 2013 in which she is alleged to have abused County Governor Martin Wambora.

In all instances, some social media users claimed there were “selective” arrests and prosecution of those critical of government. Critics cited the case of Moses Kuria, a Member of Parliament (MP) for Gatundu South, who allegedly made remarks on Facebook against the Luo Community but did not face the same punitive actions.

A recent news report, however, indicates that the National Cohesion and Reconciliation Commission and the Public Prosecutor are calling for the MP’s case to be revisited for the “incitement to violence, hate speech and fanning ethnic hatred.”

The incidents of arrest, prosecution and law amendments demonstrate a recurring theme of clamping down on dissenting citizen voices, a concern that was highlighted by the Kenya Human Rights Commission and the International Federation for Human Rights following the enactment of the Security Laws (Amendment) Act.

While the country remains on a constant alert for terror attacks, this has been used to strengthen the control that the state has on freedom of expression and surveillance. The lack of laws that limit state access to citizens’ information further exacerbates this concern.

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