A report by Freedom House has downgraded Kenya’s internet freedoms score from free to partially free. According to the report, Internet freedom in Kenya declined in the past year due to coordinated online misinformation campaigns that effectively manipulated information during the 2017 elections season, as well as the passage of a cybercrime law that penalizes the publication of false news with prison sentences up to ten years.

“In the past year, especially during the elections period, Kenya’s vibrant online sphere has seen the proliferation of semi-organized “bloggers for hire” who use their collective clout on Twitter and Facebook to manipulate the online information landscape and shape public opinion.”

Hate speech and Propaganda: The report noted that online manipulation was particularly pronounced during the 2017 elections season. Propaganda, hate speech, and social media campaigns targeted individuals or organizations affiliated with the opposing side, including via paid Google Ads and Facebook sponsored posts. The controversial firm Cambridge Analytica was revealed to have been behind two websites that were used extensively during the general elections’ campaigns, one of which spread hate speech- therealraila.com; the other spread positive narratives favouring the incumbent candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta- uhuruforus.com.

Legal Environment: The new Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, 2018, passed in May 2018, threatens to further restrict online freedom of expression. The law imposes penalties of up to 10 years in prison for the publication of “false” or “fictitious” information that results in “panic” or is “likely to discredit the reputation of a person.” In June 2018, the Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE) successfully appealed the problematic provisions of the law, which were subsequently suspended until the court could hear the case.

Despite the negative trajectory, the report notes that Kenya’s civil society has been active in pushing back against internet freedom violations. It applauds the Kenyan independent judiciary which has been in the forefront of protecting the fundamental rights of citizens online when activists have filed cases against government infringements.

Internet Access: Kenya’s internet access has grown exponentially due to the increasing affordability of internet service. Kenya boasts of the second fastest internet speeds in Africa, only behind Madagascar. Data by the Communications Authority show, broadband penetration grew to 43% with nearly 43 million mobile phone subscriptions for a penetration rate of 95.1%

Sadly, internet access and affordability vary between urban and rural areas, and there is a digital divide based on gender, with more male mobile and internet users than women. Large rural areas have not been able to benefit from Kenya’s high-capacity bandwidth in part due to market disparities and weaknesses in last mile connectivity.

Content Censorship and removal: The report noted that there were no observed cases of content censorship. Social networking platforms and communication applications such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn were also fully accessible.  Nonetheless, the government periodically polices the internet for content that is perceived to be morally objectionable.

The internet remained unrestricted during the contested post-election period, including when the government jammed the signals of three leading television stations for planning to air opposition leader Raila Odinga’s unofficial inauguration in January 2018. The networks’ websites were not blocked, enabling them to stream the events online.

However, the state has increasingly sought content removed online, with government officials, politicians, and religious leaders pointing to certain laws, religion, or morality as justification. In April 2018, the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) restricted the distribution, exhibition, or broadcast of the “Rafiki” film in any form or on any platform, including online, in Kenya on the grounds that the film promoted homosexuality. The KFCB also banned six children’s television programs for ostensibly promoting homosexuality.

Digital Activism: The beauty of Kenya’s online landscape is that it is used to represent a wide range of issues and viewpoints. Social media has become an influential platform for journalists to source and share news. During the 2017 elections season, however, social media enabled opinion influencers to proliferate, leading to online manipulation and overt disinformation. Several news websites were registered with legitimate-sounding names to disseminate false news, such as CNN Channel 1 (cnnchannel1.com), undermining the quality of information available online.

Social media, especially Twitter, continues to be a critical platform for socio-political debate, organization, and mobilization around topical issues in Kenya. The examples included #ElectionsKE, #KenyaDecides, #LipaKamaTender , #SwitchoffKPLC, #SGRSlavery and  #SomeoneTellCNN

Economic Growth: There are no economic constraints on online media in Kenya, which has helped online outlets thrive, though the government has been known to use its advertisement spending to influence the media’s editorial choices, resulting in financially-induced self-censorship. Fast and affordable internet in major cities and towns has enabled Kenya’s growing class of digitally skilled citizens to create content and alternative sources of news and information.

Bloggers and social media personalities have gained influential status over the past few years. The exponential growth in blogs has created an economically viable industry for bloggers who are increasingly sought by Kenyan businesses as a platform for advertising.

Intimidation, violence and arrests: Bloggers and internet users have faced increasing intimidation, arrests and violence for their online activities in recent years. During the elections, the authorities often destroyed cameras and phones of journalists to suppress reporting on the election’s violence and the documentation of human rights violations.

Numerous Kenyan bloggers and social media users were arrested or summoned for questioning during the report’s coverage period, continuing an alarming trend that has grown in recent years. They include: bloggers Paul Odhiambo, Robert Alai and Cyprian Nyakundi, WhatsApp admins Japeth Mulewa and Longton Jamil and Oliver Nyabwazi for allegedly writing hate speech on her FB page.

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