Should Government Regulate Social Media in Kenya?

In the past week, we have seen one faux-pas in an Embakasi digital prayer cell group go viral, and the private recordings of a private affair between a DJ and a woman become a matter of ‘public interest’. All irreversible. All embarrassing to those in them, and entertaining and/or appalling to the (un)willing recipients.

 

These are some of the outcomes of a digital society, one that is set to continue growing in number, of both passive and active users. The gadgets in our hands and on our laps, or on our desks, are avenues to transmit all manner of content and data. “Traditional” disseminators of information find themselves contending for attention with the more connected and engaged audiences who have the means to create, produce and share news, gossip, (mis)information and more, at their disposal.

 

Kenyan media and corporate Kenya have, since the turn of the decade, been getting in the social media game. The creative ways in which social media managers for various brands leverage a trending topic to do some product placement is impressive, if sometimes inappropriate, and speaks to just how mainstream social media have become as channels for communication and marketing. There are dedicated social media channels for breaking and sharing news, and engaging audiences. Civil society, one would contend, is being redefined or reclaimed on social media.

 

We have, to some extent, a digital government. Indeed, this was the alternative branding for the incumbent government during the pre-2013 election campaign period. Many a politician can be found on social media. A primary motivation, especially for those who engage in their personal capacity, is to directly share, and perhaps connect with the electorate. As with mainstream media and corporates, politicians are having to learn that the rules of social media engagement are different. These are avenues for many-to-many communication; it does not suffice to merely broadcast, no matter who you are.

 

The question many are now asking is whether social media use should/can be regulated.

 

Recently, some Kenyan lawmakers called on the Communications Authority to draft policies that would enable Parliament to enact laws around regulating the use of social media. They cited the fast-moving, irreversible nature of information shared on these platforms. We have seen the good, the bad and the ugly presented by real-time sharing of information. In their case, the parliamentarians cited a case of the news of an MCA’s passing being posted first on social media, before the family of the deceased was informed. That, in fact, isn’t the first of those cases. Nor is the sharing of unverified information, rumours or misinformation new, much in the same way we are used to alternative versions of events being shared on these platforms.

 

The desire to regulate social media is not unique to the Kenyan government. It is an issue that comes up often in many countries, including our neighbours who have interesting laws in effect. Efforts to reign in electronic forms of communication through laws such as the contentious Security Bill, and the recent announcement by some Members of Parliament hint at reactive, rather than proactive and evidence-based approaches. The benefits of social media, and the Internet in general, in connecting people to each other, and to vast opportunities don’t seem to be at the fore of legislative considerations. Besides, regulating social media content is a game of whack-a-mole, at best. It has been offered that a more effective approach to dealing with bad speech or content, is to enforce more speech, free speech.

 

Digital literacy, in my view, is best acquired through continued engagement, and not necessarily trainings, especially in the pedagogical format favoured in most cases. Granted, there might be an appetite for the latter. It is through trial and error, and being corrected along the way by others with whom we engage, that we learn when to stop and question the veracity of a piece of information before spreading it. This is increasingly evident among Kenyans online. The confrontations and counter narratives presented around the news items capturing public attention this past week, and many other times before, indicate that it’s not easy to propagate one narrative, and for it to go unchallenged. This is starkly different from traditional forms of communication, where the audience often would not get a chance to share their views, especially in a sustained fashion, be it traditional media or politicians as the information nodes.

 

Lawmakers would do well to spend time better understanding how social media in Kenya are used, before proposing laws to ‘regulate’. The bad and the ugly are not the entire story.

 

What About the People?

Many democratic societies today are grappling with upholding and defending free speech, as well as drawing the lines on where it crosses over to hate, or even dangerous speech. Hate speech remains a term without a universal definition. In Kenya, recent history is littered with evidence of the impact (but not necessarily a direct correlation) of speech on violence, especially during election periods. In 2007/8, we saw the addition of SMS and social media platforms to the propagation of rumours, but also to the creation of innovations like Ushahidi to fill the media gap with crowdsourced and verified information. It was after that unfortunate time that we also saw the introduction of hate speech into law.

Article 13 of the National Cohesion and Integration Act, 2008 provides a framework of what constitutes hate speech and ethnic hatred. Article 33 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 guarantees the right to freedom of expression, but points out that freedom does not extend to propaganda for war, incitement to violence, hate speech or advocacy of hatred – constituting ethnic hatred, vilification of others, incitement to cause harm- or based on any ground of discrimination as contemplated in article 27(4). For reference, article 27(4) highlights that the State shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, including  race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or birth. Further, article 91 of the katiba reads that political parties shall not (a) be founded on a religious, linguistic, racial, ethnic, gender or regional basis or seek to engage in advocacy of hatred on any such basis; (b) engage in or encourage violence by, or intimidation of, its members, supporters, opponents or any other person.

However, as often is the case, the problem is not the absence of legal frameworks. It takes people and institutions to enforce the words in these documents.

Over the past week, YouTube clips of former Nairobi mayor, George Aladwa addressing an audience in Kibera during Mashujaa day have done the rounds, and stirred reactions, ranging from outrage at his utterances,to a spirited defence against his arrest. Nor is Aladwa the first political leader to be careless with his words. There have been comparisons to Moses Kuria’s words to energised youth in Gatundu a couple of months back. What dominates discourse now is the political party affiliations of each, and how the law has (not) been applied in each case.

Those defending Aladwa posit him as a victim. That he was arrested and grilled for hours while the same didn’t hold for Moses Kuria, for instance, does merit a spirited debate. What is worrying, however, is the notion that his words were taken out of context, an argument brought forth, by, among others, Raila Odinga. In so doing, the discussion is now along blurred lines, and the issues condensed into one false narrative: Aladwa, as a symbol of some injustice.

I would like to bring back to the fore the audiences who have been subjected to Aladwa’s, Kuria’s and other politicians’ charged speeches. One trend observed since the 2005 referendum about inflammatory political speech is that it moved from being overt to covert; more parables, proverbs, and nuanced. The coded language doesn’t outrightly call for action to be taken against a certain group, and the framing is in passive tense; ‘we must take action against group X’ has become ‘action must be taken against some people’. This is left to the audience to decipher who the people are, and what the action to be taken is. Whether by design or by default, this seemingly exonerates the speaker – often a politician wielding significant influence over the audience addressed – whose defence then becomes that they cannot be held accountable for the actions taken by his audience. We have also had hate speech and/or ethnic incitement cases taken to the courts, none of which have resulted in full prosecution or sentencing. The NCIC, in the meantime, has been employing Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR); which has basically entailed speakers (mostly politicians) being asked to apologise to the audience they offended. How effective that mechanism is, we can’t know for sure, but perhaps the symbolism of it does resonate.

In the recent case with Aladwa, CORD, in speaking out, had a chance to be the bigger party, to condemn the clear incitement that was, and then address whatever context they insist was misinterpreted. Jubilee politicians, in their reactions, did not have to resort to the set of adjectives they did, to describe Mr Aladwa’s actions. In all this, it is the audience susceptible to incitement that is all but forgotten in the discussion; the people of Kibera who were present that day, and those who were at the rally in Gatundu. What did they take away? How are those words sitting in their minds and hearts, and are they contemplating acting on them? What is being done to counter the impact of the charged words meted out on them? What about all the other cases that are unrecorded or brought to (social) media attention?
History has a way of repeating itself, if we fail to draw lessons from it.  As the swahili proverb goes, fahali wawili wakipigana, nyasi huumia.

This article also appeared on the Daily Nation on October 26, 2015. 

On Writing about Tech in Africa

(As posted on Medium)

Read an article (on international media) lately about some tech startup or innovation in Africa? Have the words “disrupt”, “revolutionise”, or phrases like “the next big thing” appeared? Have you found yourself believing that there’s a “tech revolution” across the continent (country) of Africa?

It is understandable that the rest of the world (Africans included) is now a bit more aware, and perhaps (more) vested in the “Africa Rising” narrative. As a friend once put it: “Africa rising ; someone opened the oven early, the yeast is not ready”.

It is tedious, to always be on the reactive side of matters Africa — be it in the political, humanitarian , and now, tech framing. The instruments of global opinion-shaping media are skewed to the global North, even though there are, and have been concerted efforts to “Africanise” them; solutions offered to the “time to tell our own African stories” mission, if you will.

Reading piece after piece about African tech startups or tech innovations, coupled with working in one of the emerging ecosystems in “the home of the Silicon Savannah”, I have noticed the range of lexicon used to describe them. “The [insert Silicon Valley enterprise] equivalent of Africa/country X in Africa.” “ Startup X or innovation Y will “revolutionise” or “disrupt” industry Z.” Share others that come to mind.

It is tiring, and irking. But more importantly, it’s problematic for a number of reasons.

I appreciate that media works in a certain way — globally, regionally and internationally. Sensationalism seems to be here to stay. All that aside, my contention really is with the tech determinism that is created in framing nascent endeavours as “the next big thing(s)”. And it is interesting to note that many of the innovations/start-ups are often still trying to figure out what their business, profit and sustainability models are/will be, perhaps even trying to grasp the operating environments, the challenges and opportunities preceding the tech. Forward thinking is always welcome, but creating a false determinism, especially given the oft missing context of operational environments is, in my opinion, tainting the outlook on tech in Africa, by Africa, for Africa. I also don’t believe that many, if any of the startups or innovators interviewed (when interviewed) get to review the final drafts of these media articles. Even if they do, one would not fault them for not correcting the descriptions created, or for even performing to the media spotlight (no such thing as bad press, right?) . In an attention economy, you have to do what you can to gain traction, as many probably argue. It’s not to say that the industries in which tech innovations or startups operate or innovate won’t be disrupted; the framing in many a news article or documentary creates the false notion that this will happen in the next year, or two. And when that doesn’t happen, whispers of “why aren’t we seeing another M-PESA” start to be heard. Impatience starts to creep in. Any new or recycled attempt to figure a role for tech in some sector catches the hungry media’s radar. Another news article is quickly and eagerly put together. Yet another “next big thing”, another startup/innovation that will “revolutionise” or “disrupt”. A vicious cycle.

For our dear friends in local and international media who feel vested in writing about tech in Africa, note the following: You are not necessarily helping by using such bold declarations and descriptions, especially if research or background assessments to establish the context(s) around which these innovations/startups emerge is/are not part of the consideration. If you haven’t been informed already, please understand: technology is NOT a panacea. I do see why it is so tempting to make that the case for Africa. What were your news organisations writing about Africa (local and regional ones included) five, ten years ago, after all? A startup or innovation in, say, edtech, will not “revolutionise” learning. At best, it will amplify the preceding efforts. At worst, it will create further divides.

The Future of Cyberspace in Kenya

(As first posted on Medium).

The Global Conference on Cyberspace, hosted by the Kingdom of the Netherlands on 16th and 17th April, 2015, was a very interesting one to have attended. The convening drew attendance from governments and private sector players; civil society were invited to the table, with a one and a half day pre-event that served as a capacity-building program, and an ‘unconference’ event where they could set the agenda, discuss further on issues that were brought up at the conference, or those not tackled altogether.

The themes under which the future of cyberspace was discussed, were freedom, security and growth. The three are interesting departure points to assess cyberspace considerations in each country. For instance, in Kenya, we continue to enjoy Internet freedom, something I contend is by default, not design, in that it hasn’t been a space that the government has attempted to regulate from the onset. That said, the freedom enjoyed as a result of minimal regulation also exposes individual users and institutions alike to any number of risks — data privacy violations, cyber fraud, to name a few. Kenya is currently awaiting two pieces of legislation: the Data Protection Bill and the Cybercrime and Computer Related Crimes Bill that will introduce measures to protect user privacy as well as provide legal options through which to address cybercrime grievances. Reviews of various versions of these bills have noted that there have been clauses that could undermine freedom of expression. It will be imperative for the Legislative processes to balance provisions on security, privacy and freedom on the Internet.

We will soon need to have a conversation on Net Neutrality in Kenya. India is currently engaging in a conversation on the issue, around the regulatory attempts that could undermine it. The Internet.org effort by Facebook and other tech companies, already on Kenya’s shores (in partnership with Airtel) has come under criticism, that it undermines the principle of network neutrality. The initiative, aimed at first time Internet users in the developing world, is already missing the mark, as the target group makes up for a very minimal percentage of its current users. (If you are an Internet.org user in Kenya, would love to hear your thoughts on the service!)

On security, insights from the 2014 Kenya Cyber Security Report indicate the growing risks that individuals and institutions are increasingly facing — ranging from malware, to fraud. User security in online banking systems locally has been found wanting (read from page 28 of the above report on this). Awareness of the risks posed in cyberspace is minimal, and measures to address and mitigate cyberspace risks, challenges and threats exist mostly on paper. For instance, Kenya has a national cybersecurity strategy penned by the ICT Ministry that outlines measures to be taken to secure the country’s cyberspace and ensure cyber resilience. Since 2012, Kenya has supposedly had a National Computer Incident Response Team Coordination Centre (KE-CIRT/CC), in accordance with ITU recommendations. The said centre is housed under the Communications Authority of Kenya. Its work and impact is unknown, though, you can supposedly report an incident or vulnerability. The importance of such a response mechanism has motivated individual efforts by IT security professionals to offer incident response, share information and raise awareness, in the glaring absence of institutional mechanisms within government. The Kenyan government was once again quick to sign up as a ‘founding member’ of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise that was unveiled at the close of the conference. Will be watching with unabated breath to see the government’s contribution to this new body. We all remember the repeated defacing of the Kenya government institutions’ websites, as well as hacking of social media accounts…makes one wonder what all these strategies and institutions in place are up to. The same government could violate our constitutional right to privacy in the name of national security. (Let’s not forget the scandal that was the Chinese nationals arrested in Runda in December last year, and who as yet, haven’t been prosecuted for the lack of legislature to this effect.)

On growth, it was rightfully noted that “the Internet is rapidly becoming the most critical infrastructure for economies around the globe”. In Kenya, business and economic growth facilitated by the Internet has massive opportunities as well as challenges. Our Internet-based annual economic outputs are currently valued at approximately Kshs. 100 billion, the second highest in Africa. Impressive indeed. However, further growth and diversification of Internet and cyberspace-related economic activity is limited by lack of regulatory frameworks such as the aforementioned Data Protection Bill. Kenya was once poised to set up a Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector, greatly undermined as a result of a delayed process of enacting the Bill. Initiatives and investments such as Rockefeller’s Digital Jobs Africa bear massive potential, but challenges- including talent — need to be addressed carefully and strategically to ensure that the country can derive more economic growth and generate employment via cyberspace activities.

It’s not all up to government though. Training institutions (with their ever increasing ICT-oriented courses and curricula) need to churn out talent that can either be hired or that can be enterprising around the Internet economy. Civil society needs to align itself to the cyberspace, to keep government (and private sector) in check in their efforts, as many of them could undermine freedoms that have been hard-earned. Academia have their research and analytical work cut out for them. All have to work together to facilitate knowledge exchange and wholesomely contribute to a safe, free and secure cyberspace in Kenya.

A Side Note: other interesting observations from the conference.

From the onset, governments as represented by Ministers read out statements on their position and efforts on enhancing the cyberspace. It was particularly interesting to note the different angles from which various countries approached the discussion. MENA countries emphasized that countering terrorism in the cyberspace is their priority. China invited others to join them in their efforts, reiterating that they believe in the freedom, security and growth of the cyberspace (lots of eyes rolled). Sub-Saharan African countries — Uganda, Senegal and Ghana — read out their ministerial statements, in which they reiterated commitment to passing laws to address cyberspace related issues, with Senegal referring to the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection, recently adopted by the regional body as a guiding principle for their local efforts. There was the usual extending of a begging bowl; assistance from the Global North was sought.

It was noticeable that Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa weren’t as vocal/visible. The three countries are ‘leaders’ in Internet connectivity and have significantly large ICT sectors, one wonders where their ministers of ICT and/or Foreign Affairs were.

It was interesting how most discussions boiled down to matters of mass surveillance (many spirited attempts at justifying it from government types), privacy and security(whether one can exist without the other) in cyberspace.

On civil society participation, it was good to note involvement within the conference programme (e.g. Nnenna Nwakanma’s inclusion in the opening panel, where she fantastically represented civil society voice) and beaming their thoughts out loud via the Twittersphere. That said, I was rather disappointed by the low turnout at the unconference, given dissatisfaction expressed in the main conference discussions by civil society types in attendance. Some of the unconference sessions, however, were interesting, others altogether problematic. (In my view the framing around ‘the next (two) billion Internet users’ worries me…that’s for another day).

However, it was also notable that no civil society organisations were founding members of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise…so much for a multi-stakeholder approach!

Kenya Tech Community’s ‘Dalliance’ with the Goverment

It is no doubt that many Kenyan stakeholders have benefitted from the ‘Silicon Savannah’ and ‘East Africa ICT Hub’ monikers bestowed upon Kenya. It is also no doubt that ICTs are a player in virtually every aspect of society and industry today, and are here to stay. All stakeholders are clamouring to establish their significance and how their roles and responsibilities will be disrupted by digital technologies and the Internet.

Kenya’s tech sector has been lauded, and recently even ‘validated’ by the government of President Kenyatta. From government investment into incubators, as is the case with Nailab, to the famed recent impromptu visit by His Excellency to iHub, Nailab and other tech companies housed at the Bishop Magua Centre (including a shout out in the State of the Nation address) and even funding commitments to establishing entities like Enterprise Kenya, to be co-facilitated with players from the tech sector.

Some have said the community is currently experiencing a ‘honeymoon phase’, with government. This isn’t a bad thing, as it has taken lots of hard work for the tech players to gain rightful recognition. However, players in this scene, and in particular, local tech folk with access to the highest office of the land, will do well to learn from the missteps and relationship dynamics that the Kenyan government has had, especially with the media and civil society. The Public Benefit Organisations (PBO) Act, The Media Council Bill and Kenya Information Communications (Amendment) Act come to mind. How media and civil society actors have found themselves battling against problematic clauses in these laws provides a cautionary tale for the nascent ICT sector.

As the tech space expands, government is also looking at regulating it, and this could be done in ways that undermine the emerging local scene, if caution is not heeded. Laws proposed and government thinking around data privacy and cyber security, for instance, do have implications that may complicate e-commerce and Internet freedom. The Security Laws Amendment Act had clauses that touched on ICT components, in particular Internet and social media use for communication. While wining, dining and basking in government/The Presidency’s attention, those representing the tech sector–from the non-government/non-profit hubs, to private sector tech companies and everyone in between — should keep a very watchful eye on what the Executive and Legislative arms of government are doing, boldly or stealthily, as far as investment commitments, regulations and laws go, even as they hope to further their agendas. It would be a tragedy to have been coopted into an agenda that undermines the future of the ICT sector.

The tech sector, however defined, does not exist in a vacuum. The battles between government and media and civil society also have an impact on how this cross-cutting sector pans out. Bloggers for instance, who fall within media and civil society, rely on ICTs for their work. Rules and regulation attempts, impact their work. The tech community also expands to the consumers of products and innovations. They should be kept in mind as well.

 

There is ongoing talk for players in the tech community (innovators, business operators and others) should have their own association, to serve as a voice of the technology sector in Kenya. How that shapes up will be interesting, as we also figure out what and who comprises the tech sector/community in Kenya. Recent history bears lessons for those at the forefront to heed, as we forge as ‘the home of the Silicon Savannah’.
This article also appeared on the Daily Nation, on April 23, 2015.

To appreciate social media’s impact in Kenya, go beyond the surface

There’s a lot of opinion-sharing on social media and blogging in Kenya.Unfortunately, not as much as analysis which is a much-needed exercise in humility for some.  At the Bloggers Forum  recently hosted at the iHub it seemed, for instance, that the working definition of the term ‘blogger’ was anyone who tweets, has a Facebook account, and maybe a website. Or, to quote David Makali from the forum, “bloggers are the younger brothers of journalists.”  Problematic as that in itself is – the pitting of bloggers against journalists especially-  I would like to address points raised by Njeri Thorne, in her piece: We need mature debate on social media. The long and short of my rebuttal is that there is plenty of mature debate on these platforms just as much as there are many ‘immature’ attacks or debates.

 

To appreciate the unfolding impact of social media in Kenya, we need to curb the selective assessment of what happens on these platforms. (Cue Chimamanda Adichie’s oft-cited offering, on the danger of a single story).

 

Let’s start with the point on which I agree with Njeri and other opinionistas of Kenya’s social media scene. Indeed, there are emerging segments of our community, voicing their thoughts and opinions on Facebook, Twitter, forums, blogs and other interactive, Internet-enabled spaces. As she rightfully says, they indeed are affirming or challenging Kenya’s state of affairs. This story is still writing itself, so at best, we will all do well to analyze it as it unfolds, but to do so in context!

 

Njeri discusses the autonomy of social media users and their (lack of) commitment to critical-rational thought. Her sweeping declaration that online discussions are absent of ‘personal considerations on policies,governance and the state of affairs in the country’ leads me to think that she may not spend much time on these spaces to see its manifestation. As an example, I point her to the conversations that took place online in the build up to, and during the 2014 Saba Saba rally. Even though it seemed- through conversations and convictions, online and offline – that the country would tear at its already weak seam, there were interesting bits within these that hinted at alternative ‘Ukenya’ perspectives (ones that went beyond political,religious or ethnic affiliations). #EthnicHateinKenya was a very honest assessment of the issue in the country. I recall cringing at the sight of the hashtag, but as I analyzed the content further, I appreciated the bold attempt to talk through ethnicity as an identity, in spite of the heightened political climate of the time. I invite Njeri, and others opining on social media to take a closer look at the content in the subject matter. This is simply one example, in a publicly searchable Internet archive of many.

 

Kenyans on social media will use humour, satire, vitriol, Bible verses, and yes, even hate to express themselves on issues as they arise. For one, it is fallacious to group Kenyans online into any homogeny; as Africa is (NOT) a country, Kenyans on social media are (NOT all) hate-mongers or ethnic/political bigots. Nor should this point constitute a mere ‘but’ or a silent admission in the many rants about Kenyans on social media.

 

Njeri mentions a simple litmus test: ‘ask the most vocal within the space to define debt ratio, let alone what Kenyan debt ratio is!’ Unless her take on this was based on experimentation, I have a difficult time taking this seriously. And even if it isn’t, there’s a whole other conversation to have about social network structures and the information flow architecture on each social network. Point here being, Kenyans on social media (and especially on Twitter, the ‘digital public baraza’) engage in some of the most stimulating conversations and interesting thoughts on the state of our economy!

 

Yes, there are times sense and logic take a backseat on social media. However, rarely is that the only angle in any conversation. Counter-narratives abound, to hate, incitement, irrationality and illogical thought, and are expressed in a truly Kenyan blend of styles.

 

‘Bait and switch’ approaches to analyzing Kenya’s social media dynamic miss the point, and risk tainting the bigger picture and could be a bigger threat to the underlying freedoms enjoyed online than the very conversations that are (selectively) critiqued .

 

So, dear social media analysts, go beyond the surface and the highlights. The Kenyan social media scene is paving the way to (re)shaping  and consolidating Kenyan identities.

 

This article also appeared on the Daily Nation, on February 19, 2015.

Dear Kenyans, Tweet On!

Social media are playing a critical role in lending and amplifying citizen voices in Kenya today, contributing to what has been termed a ‘networked fifth estate’. Citizens are finding and amplifying their own collective voice; we no longer have to wait for the media, the opposition, civil society, religious institutions,the government or any other ‘intermediary’ to ‘speak on our behalf’ or to represent our views while we passively watch/listen.

 

There is no shortage of issues and problems plaguing Kenya today, heck, it’s like a cruel game of whack-a-mole. Coupled with the politicization of virtually every discourse on any issue in any sector, to be a diligent Kenyan, practising one’s constitutional right to public participation is no small feat.  

 

Our country, for all its misfortunes and blunders has one interesting tool whose impact we are just realizing: the Internet. We have Internet Freedom(the efforts to curtail them,though, are a discussion for another day). Coupled with the proliferation of Internet-enabled mobile devices at increasingly affordable rates for an increasing percentage of the population, we are well on our way to writing an interesting chapter in world history on use of these devices and tools to shape our democracy.

 

Take the controversial Security Laws (Amendment) Bill discussion for instance. Public discourse  began with news pieces from our media that were shared online. The interaction and reactions that ensued largely entailed demanding access to the draft bill that only journalists initially seemed to have access to. Relentless efforts by vigilant citizens tweeting at journalists and legislators to avail the draft saw it uploaded online for wananchi to read and scrutinize for themselves. Problematic clauses in the draft have been highlighted and discussed at length on Twitter for instance, arguably with more depth and diversity of insight and contribution than on traditional media’s coverage. Pressure to allow for public input to the draft has largely come from the online community, when it was noted that this had not taken place.

 

The turnout at the public forum earlier this week was low, despite the flurry of online engagement on the issue. This is where critics of social media’s impact come alive and scorn at the poor translation of online activity to offline action. However, it must be noted that different times call for different strategies. Traditional forms of turning up – physical rallies, street protests, town hall meetings- while significant, are no longer the only forms in which we can exercise civic engagement. We need to be open to the fact that they may no longer be relevant. Besides, don’t we have a  ‘digital government’, in the home of the ‘Silicon Savannah’? This, to me, says that it’s time to rethink public consultation forum models. The newspaper announcements for sessions that are held at impractical times during the week should not be simplified to indicate apathy. In this case, one afternoon session, in one location (Nairobi), on a law that would affect all Kenyans cannot be counted as representative by any stretch of the imagination.  Pressure must be mounted on government, at both county and national levels to rethink effective ways of facilitating citizens’ public participation in governance issues given the various contexts in which they operate. Online consultations have been leveraged before, and are flaunted as a success by the government. I refer to the famed crowdsourcing of contributions to the National Budget by President Kenyatta back in 2011 when he was Minister of Finance. Though we never got to know how citizens’ contributions contributed to the final budget, the approach taken heralded new thinking that shouldn’t be abandoned now.

 

Yes, social media use is not representative of the population. Yes, we have a long way to go before we can talk of all Kenyans being represented online. But this should not give cause to dismiss what is playing out in the online spaces that Kenyans occupy. I contend that these spaces are perhaps even more democratic than ‘offline’ barazas or whatever predated social media as a means for congregating citizens and having them engage in discussion. I contend that for the first time, more Kenyans are transcending physical boundaries and engaging with fellow Kenyans and the rest of the continent and the world, through these online social networks. We have, for a long time, been trying to figure out what national cohesion and integration in Kenya means. Some form of it is being practised on social media. Frictions abound, as they would offline. Insults are hurled, and every so often, dangerous speech (speech with a potential to catalyze violence) rears it ugly head. However, it doesn’t carry the day. Kenyans online must be applauded for the self-regulation mechanisms they engage in to minimize toxicity in their online space. Kenyans ‘cuff’ hate by naming and shaming such speakers, countering such messages, and even drowning them with more speech, something observed by the Umati Project that monitors online public conversations to better understand hate speech dynamics. What is interesting about this trend is that it primarily stems from the citizenry. Calls by media, civil society and even government to ‘stop hate speech’ cannot be said to be the most impactful in easing any online tensions that often arise. The ‘traditional authorities’ do not always hold sway in the online space.
It would be unwise to underestimate the significant role social media is playing in aggregating citizen voices on issues affecting them. So dear Kenyans, tweet on!

 

This post also appeared on the Daily Nation, on December 17, 2014. 

Highlights from the Highway Africa 2013 (#Highway13) Conference: Speaking Truth to Power?

Media Management in The New Age Session Highlights.
Presentations by Jude Mathurine, New Media Lecturer , Rhodes University and Chaacha Mwita, Thomson Foundation

This was an amazing, stirring conference filled with great sessions, presentations, insights and discussions. The Highway Africa conference is said to be the largest gathering of African journalists at any given time. There was a great representation of media practitioners, all in all, a great atmosphere.
The intense two-day conference programme  had participants deciding which sessions to attend, as it was not possible to sit in through all. Owing to the amazing impulses I got a sense of, I’ve tried to capture highlights from tweets generated from the good folk at the conference, under the #Highway13 hashtag. For ease of perusal, I storified the tweets thematically, as per concurrent sessions, especially from the second day of the conference. (Will try my best to capture highlights from day 1 as well.)
*UPDATE: Links to podcasts, and keynote address highlights from both days of the conference*
Highlights from Keynote Addresses:
Director of BBC Global News, Peter Horrocks, delivered a keynote address on Media, Politics and Accountability, summarized here. He spoke on the ethics of journalism, and how the BBC can and does support ethical standards in African media. (Full text of his speech also available here.) It was interesting to listen to the speech, as it came hot off the heels of BBC Africa’s Debate about the role of international media in Africa, in which I also happened to be a panelist.
“Ethical journalism ensures that phone hacking scandals are not repeated.” Peter Horrocks.
Dr. Peter Veirweij, on the second day, delivered a very interesting keynote on Data Speaking Truth to Power, where he emphasized why the future of journalism lies in data. His full presentation is available here. Some interesting highlights and ‘quotables’ from his presentation include:
Journalism is producing truth-seeking stories in the public interest based on data.
With the rise of social media we need a way to make the news, not just rehash it.
While using the tools of science for data journalism, it’s key to abandon the jargon of science (in reporting).
[VIDEO] Data Journalists are the new punks.

His full presentation is available here.
Highlights from Day 2’s (mid-morning)Parallel Sessions: 
 Themes covered include Internet Services, Privacy and Freedom of Expression (ethics, government role, social networks), Speaking truth to power? Who speaks? 
Whose truth? and  Youth Political Participation and Accountability (in South Africa).
It was unfortunate that these run as parallel sessions. I happened to be presenting on one about The role of Social Media & Alternative Media in Elections & Accountability, in which I shared findings from research conducted and projects deployed in Kenya during the 2013 General Elections. I didn’t get to attend most of these wonderful sessions, but thankfully insights were populated on Twitter, for curation here 🙂
Highlights from the Media Management in The New Age Session (day 2).

Presentations by Jude Mathurine, New Media Lecturer , Rhodes University and Chaacha Mwita, Thomson Foundation

I thoroughly enjoyed this session, as it addressed matters of media management, and managing the managers, with the Nation Media Group cited as a case study. The session was followed by the launch of a book with the same title: Media Management in the New Age: How Managers Lead Media in Eastern and Southern Africa   that I highly recommend to the practitioners in this space. The tweets curated here are highlights. More on these presentations available in the aforementioned book.

Here’s a link to the highlights: http://storify.com/NiNanjira/highway-africa-2013-conference-speaking-truth-to-p

Art Attack: Reclaiming Art

Art is not a preserve for those who fail or aren’t good at ‘everything else’! Art is the revolution!

If nothing else sinks in, let this be the take away!

Society has been perpetrating this notion that the pursuit of career or livelihood through artistic ventures should warrant a pity party, is the work of the idle, maybe even the hopeless, or a conclusion that those who dare try are people who failed at all else; they didn’t excel in the ‘subjects that lead to meaningful careers’.

It’s time we paused and questioned why we are sacrificing the beauty of art at the altar of ignorance.

Art is what it is to be human, first and foremost.

Let’s explore some definitions of art, shall we?

  1. The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power
  2. Works produced by such skill and imagination
  3. Subjects of study primarily concerned with the processes and products of human creativity and social life, such as languages, literature, and history (as contrasted with scientific or technical subjects)
  4. A skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice

Many more exist, but let’s work with these. Worth noting here that a person who is skilled at an activity is an artist. If you consider yourself skilled at something, congratulations, you are an artist!

Artistry, therefore, doesn’t solely apply to the production or skills in art works, such as painting, singing, writing, and any other endeavour we typically consider art. Art involves connection (an interaction with a recipient/someone who notices it) and generosity (sharing it for it to be noticed).

Art is not a gene or a specific talent. Art is an attitude, culturally driven and available to anyone who chooses to adopt it. Art isn’t something sold in a gallery or performed on a stage. Art is the unique work of a human being, work that touches another.

This ought to be our point of departure when discussing and imagining art,artistry and artistic works.

So, when we (sub)consciously look down on ‘art’, or artists, what or who are we really looking down on?

It’s looking down on your dreams. The very thing we all desire deep down; to live out our dreams. It’s condemning thought and imagination; elements that produce creative solutions to complex issues. It’s  looking down on the courageous and daring among us; those being the change we always say we want to see. They’re doing their bit, and we are making it all the more difficult by not being supportive, or at the very least not one of the obstacles they have to face.

 

Art Is Frightening… there’s no doubt about that!

Art isn’t pretty. Art isn’t painting. Art isn’t something you hang on the wall.

Art is what we do when we’re truly alive.

If you’ve already decided that you’re not an artist, it’s worth considering why you made that decision and what it might take to unmake it.

If you’ve announced that you have no talent (in anything!), then you’re hiding.

Art might scare you.

Art might bust you.

But art is who we are and what we do and what we need.

An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it (all of it, the work, the process, the feedback from those we seek to connect with) personally.

Art isn’t a result; it’s a journey. The challenge of our time is to find a journey worthy of your heart and your soul.

Art is difficult and risky, especially in a world conditioning us to be averse to such. It’s also the only option if we choose to care. Art is not for ‘other people’.

Art met Industrialization, and Art was systematized.

We live in a world of industry and systems that offer us skills, job security and some form of stability. In many instances, not much of you is required to meet job targets. In fact, we now have devices that can do most everything, all we have to do is show up to the office, fire them up, pull out templates and models, cut,copy and paste. In such situations, which happen to be a reality for a significant number of people the world over, not much of one’s art is evoked. Not much of your creativity, imagination, insight nor ideas is required. And that is where art goes to die.  A slow, painful death.

The education that is supposed to support and nurture art was also systematized. The Kenyan education system, for the most part, only requires one to exercise the commitment of chunks of information to memory, long enough to pass an examination, that entry barrier to ‘having a good life’.

It’s not art that is to blame here. That would be to fault an essential part of what makes us human beings. Nor should we be in the business of blaming or condescending. A lot more people need to engage in the business of reconnecting with art, and all the wonderful complexities it’s out to bring. I dare say that the societal angst looming over us is frustrated art within people, art that is yearning to be exercised!

The ‘industry’ that systematized art, in and of itself, was a creation of art! Any industries that have, can and will emerge to sustain careers in the arts are/will themselves be…you guessed it…works of art.

On realizing that art could and should inform everything we do, regardless of profession,interests or skills, we will be a step closer to shedding away the patronizing and condescending attitudes we hold towards those who’ve made art the core of who they are and what they do.

Leadership for instance, not only requires leadership skills or some professional expertise, it requires art as an adhesive; that commitment to brave through uncharted territories towards creating opportunities for others to excel. Tactics are no replacement for art. I can’t imagine a more beautiful existence, than one in which leadership is ASSIGNED (not abandoned) to one artist by a society of artists, a people who embrace imagination, creativity and innovation. A society, or a critical mass of people who acknowledge vulnerability, uncertainty, who are restless under a status quo…that is a society well on its way to excellence, because art is not relegated or delegated to a few, it’s a reality and the only  choice for most.

Art has no right answer. The best we can hope for is an interesting answer.

So instead of looking down on or being afraid of art, try embracing it. You’ll come to admire those who make it their daily mission to share their art with us – bills, financial obligations and uncertainty (unassured stability) notwithstanding.

Thoughts are inspired by, and most quotes are from, Seth Godin’s book: The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? 

Kenya’s Traffic Rules…And Fines

Catch up with the rules and fines in a series of 140 characters. Be informed…or warned.

Catch up with the rules and fines in a series of 140 characters. Be informed…or warned.