On March 8th, police arrested a photographer; an arrest that should have made social media users cautious about using defamatory words on social networking sites.
David Ndung’u was arrested for posting an insulting message on his Facebook wall about his area Member of Parliament, Lewis Nguyai.
The Kikuyu MP filed a complaint against the 21-year-old commercial photographer, citing “discriminatory, defamatory and high profile insult.”
Mr Nguyai’s complaint was backed by a Facebook page printout indicating that Mr Ndung’u had called him a dog and that the insult was seen by over 1,000 of the MP’s friends, including his son who lives abroad.
However, the MP withdrew the case after Mr Ndung’u apologised. He was released, but not without a warning.
That is the same warning that National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) had issued to over four million internet users in Kenya for the last two years; hate speech on social media can land perpetrators in court.
However, two years down the line, the warning to social media users remains just that, a warning.
Some analysts say the government has failed to control what social media users post online, especially bloggers who operate in anonymity.
As Kenya inches closer to the general election, of most concern is how the government will tame irresponsible political debate that can spur public unrest.
However, as the government lags behind, a group of bloggers have joined forces to bring sanity into the blogophere.
Kennedy Kachwanya is the chairperson of the Bloggers Association of Kenya, a newly formed grouping of bloggers.
“Bloggers have of late been instrumental in shaping conversations and consolidating the divergent views on the internet into one meaningful dialogue.
For a long time, we have been looked down upon with many internet users viewing us as idlers.
We want to change this perception and we are starting to do this by recognising bloggers and acknowledging them as an essential component of the Kenyan online space,” he said.
Blogging in Kenya is growing. A ranking of African blogs in 2010 placed Kenya as the country with the third largest number of bloggers after South Africa and Nigeria.
A more recent report titled How Africa Tweets placed the country second in its presence in micro-blogging site twitter with 2.5 million tweets in 2011. At the same time, Facebook users in Kenya are the seventh largest Facebook community in the continent.
While the statistics are indicative of a country that has made enviable advances in social media literacy, they also raise the country’s risk profile as far as online defamation is concerned.
“Bloggers are becoming more aware to the fact that they have a following that is growing and with that comes responsibility,” said Mr Kachwanya.
“We were there during the post-election violence and we know what happened online and the part that bloggers played both to fuel or quell the tensions and we are determined to make things different this time,” he says.
The Bloggers Association of Kenya has come up with the first edition of the BAKE blog awards 2012.
The awards are meant to recognise bloggers that post consistently, and promote content creation in Kenya.
The awards will be feting bloggers in 14 categories; best technology, photography, creative writing, business, food, agriculture, fashion, politics, sports, general and corporate blogs. There will also be awards for the tweets of the year.
Bloggers submit their entries at the end of which judges choose the best five in each category. These are then going to be published online for Kenyans to pick the winners.
This new initiative that is owned by the online community is the first attempt at creating some sort of formal yardstick to determine the professionalism of bloggers in the country through an analysis of content and relevance.
This is, however, a tougher feat to accomplish. The Kenyan blogosphere is an everyone-for-himself, free-to-post world where subjecting individual bloggers to a uniform rulebook is almost impossible.
Uninhibited by start-up costs, publishing regulations or any formal code of ethics, some bloggers have often carried sensational and sometimes defamatory content to boost page views.
Communication scholars, however, argue that tackling hate speech in social media and on blogs might be complicated.
David Katiambo, a senior lecturer at Maseno University’s media department, says first and foremost the police and the NCIC have not failed outrightly in curbing hate speech online.
“There is a need to have a clear cut definition between irresponsible political debate and hate speech,” he says. “Several times people engage in irresponsible and “immature” political arguments both online and offline,” he said.
This, argues Mr Katiambo, is perfectly legal and democratic since everyone is entitled to their opinion and to share it with others regardless of its value.
“However, when one degenerates to personal attacks against a particular community or political opponents and aimed at fuelling similar hate among others on a public platform, then the authorities need to step in,” he said.
In addition to this, he said offenders online should be pursued and prosecuted using the existing laws that govern hate speech on mainstream media.
“We should not wait to formulate new laws to deal with bloggers or social media users who engage in hate speech because if we develop new legislation then we risk curtailing freedom of expression in the guise of fighting hate speech,” Mr Katiambo said.
And this is what has gotten the government stymied. Kenyans enjoy an online atmosphere that is relatively free of government restrictions.
The latest Freedom House index, Freedom on the Net 2011, identified key trends in 37 countries worldwide, with the aim of measuring their level of internet and new media freedom and Kenya was one of the three countries sampled in Africa.
The ratings determined three broad categories; obstacles to access, limits on content, and violation of user rights and classified countries as free, partly free or not free.
With a score of 32, Kenya was classified as “partly free” as did Rwanda the other country on the index while Ethiopia was found to be the one nation on the continent that was “not free.”
Kenya was said to have shown improvement since 2009 in net freedom ratings, beating countries like India which scored 36. The report cites that the popularity and open access to sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter was a pointer to the country’s internet freedom.
In addition to this, there are virtually no obstacles to access the internet, such as blocks on specific applications, technologies or websites. Furthermore, there is reduced regulatory and ownership control over internet and mobile access providers. As of 2008, there have been no confirmed incidents of government filtering or interference with online communication.
However, this is set to change if the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) has its way and sets up the contested Network Early Warning System. CCK is setting up a system to “spy” on private electronic mails, stating that recent ICT advancements had exposed the government to cyber security threats.
The Network Early Warning System (News), as it is known is expected to be operational by July, and is already facing stiff opposition from the online community, civil servants and the lawyers.
While CCK maintains that the News system will only be in place to counter potential cyber threats, opponents to the plan state that it could be misused by rogue government agents and politicians to support their agenda.