Columnists

Safeguard Kenya’s electoral freedoms in the Digital Age

chebukati

Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission [IEBC] Chairman Wafula Chebukati. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG

Summary

  • Perhaps due to the rapidly evolving nature of digital technologies, there is no single solution to addressing the information disorder.
  • Stakeholders have been developing legal and policy responses to attempt to mitigate the harms caused through social media platforms.
  • These have remained primarily reactive and, for governments, often punitive. Kenya is no exception.

Preparations to safeguard the credibility of Kenya’s upcoming 2022 general elections are underway. Relative to previous election cycles, stakeholders have increased their focus on the role played by digital technologies in various democratic processes and for a good reason.

From a more-connected- than-ever voter populace to mis- and disinformation, to instances of incitement to violence, networked technologies — due to their instantaneous and peer-to-peer nature —have amplified harms facing democracies.

Perhaps due to the rapidly evolving nature of digital technologies, there is no single solution to addressing the information disorder.

Stakeholders have been developing legal and policy responses to attempt to mitigate the harms caused through social media platforms.

These have remained primarily reactive and, for governments, often punitive. Kenya is no exception.

Through the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, the Kenyan government has criminalised the spread of false or misleading information. Hate speech also attracts a criminal sanction under the National Cohesion and Integration Act.

In the run up to the elections, government agencies have signalled an intent to enforce these laws and crackdown on those found to be spreading misleading content, hate speech, or engaging in cyberbullying.

On its part, the Judiciary has resolved to establish specialised courts to expedite the hearing of hate speech cases related to the elections. Civil society on the other hand have developed media literacy programmes and fact-checking initiatives.

While all these efforts are well intentioned, there are some glaring shortcomings.

For one, the lack of synergistic cooperation between election stakeholders serves to hamper the effectiveness of mitigative interventions.

More importantly, the use of criminal sanctions by the government to deter the spread of problematic content is incompatible with the nature of the information ecosystem online.

Enforcement of penal sanctions is likely to jeopardise the freedom of expression. In more extreme instances, a punitive attitude can result in a partial or total internet shutdown as has been witnessed in some countries within the region.

Alive to these shortcomings, the Kofi Annan Foundation and the Centre for Multiparty Democracy-Kenya convened a multi-stakeholder workshop in November 2021 to assess the current situation and chart a way forward.

The workshop resulted in a report with recommendations for election stakeholders.

Instead of reacting to false or misleading content, stakeholders should prime audiences to discern falsehoods by exposing them to the techniques used by bad actors.

The electioneering period is now upon us, and Kenyans are going to be exposed to harmful conduct that may jeopardise healthy civic engagement or even put lives at risk.

It is imperative for all election stakeholders to collaborate to secure Kenya’s electoral democracy while exploring opportunities for further action.

Ms Okolloh is commissioner of the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age. Mr Sugow is a legal researcher and consultant who holds a law degree from Strathmore University.