It was back on 16 May 2018 that the government of Kenya passed what many construed as a draconian law that criminalizes publication of false news with a two-year jail term or fine of up to $50,000 or an equivalent of KSH 5,000,000.
The act also, among others, restricts publication of content that is calculated or results in panic, chaos or violence or is likely to discredit the reputation of a person. Punishment for the latter is a fine of KSH 5m or imprisonment of up to 10 years.
Response to the law also known as The Computer And Cybercrimes Act has been intensely furious. There has been a general consensus that the law will engender self-censorship amongst journalists in the East African country. The law is also seen to hinder freedom of speech and expression that is guaranteed by the Kenyan constitution in article 33 and 34.
Dennis Itumbi, the Secretary of Innovation, Digital and Diaspora communication in the office of the president of Kenya says the law was informed by complaints from the public. “The computer and Cyber crime Act was a purely legislative and was subjected to public participation because the people said they needed such a law to control what was going out on the cyber space,” Itumbi said in a telephone interview.
More from Itumbi at: SoundCloud
The law has, however, done little in improving Kenya’s in the eyes of press freedom supporters. Kenya has always courted controversy over its treatment of people seen to be showing decent online. The American independent non-profit organisation Committee to Protect Journalists for instance noted that blogger Cyprian Nyakundi was arrested on 14 May and detained for three days on allegations of publishing alarming content about a senior public servant. The police said Nyakundi was in violation of section 66 of the country’s Penal code that stipulates up to two years imprisonment for publication of false statements likely to cause fear and alarm to the public.
Daily Nation, one of the leading daily newspapers in the country, reported that 60 bloggers were arrested in 2016 over posts they made online. This was seen as an interference with their freedom of expression and that of the media.
Kenya has the highest number of Internet users in the East African region. Freedom House attributes this to the fact that the country’s average mobile Internet speeds rank highest in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Many observers hold that cracking down on people’s freedom on online spaces could be an indicator that the Kenyan government is paranoid about the power of the Internet to fashion an Arab spring.
However a petition successfully filed by the Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE), got some sections of the Act suspended pending final ruling on the matter.
Speaking to Business daily, a Kenyan online news site, James Wamathai, the Director of Partnerships at BAKE, noted that the decision was timely. He added: “In the past several years, there have been attempts by the government to clamp down on the freedom of expression online. This Act is a testament of these efforts, especially after other sections were declared unconstitutional by the courts.
Kimani Kariuki, a final year student of Law at University of Nairobi says, “The government came up with this bill to try and curtail the online media since information online flows very fast and is cheaper to circulate.
“The government also knows that cyber crimes are very sophisticated thus the law will target the average citizens and other bloggers but not necessarily the real cyber criminals.”
There is relief online after the court suspended the sections. Kelvin Njoki, a Kenyan blogger says politicians pushed the law because Internet users threaten them. “Many of the corruption scandals in Kenya these days come out online because of the ability to reach many people globally very fast.”
The suspension of parts of the Computer and Cyber Crimes Act by the court in Kenya has been seen as an achievement, but it could prove to be a short-lived one. This as a case challenging the law will be heard again on 18 of July 2018.