Anti-censorship advocates have begun paying close attention to recent developments in Kenya as the country’s government mulls passing new laws dictating social media use. At first glance, the proposed law sounds quite innocuous as it simply states that people would be banned from using fake names on Facebook and other social media accounts. However, not everyone believes the government when it says that the law is intended to help stop cyber crime and instead are of the opinion that the proposed law amounts to direct censorship.
The ‘Link’ Between Cyber Crime and Social Media
The proposed law was announced by Ezekiel Mutua, the Chief Executive of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), which is in charge of regulating all forms of visual media within the country. In announcing the law, Mutua justified it by claiming that the intention of the law is to allow the government to identify a person when they’ve committed a crime using social media.
The bill, which is set to be voted on in sometime during June, would require that all Kenyans provide verification of their real identity in order to register and use any social media account. It is not yet known exactly how the law would be enforced, but what is known is that it would give the government the ability to directly control social media access.
While the government claims that the proposed law would be helpful in terms of eliminating cyber crime and preventing social media from being used for hate speech, others have accused the government of creating the law with the intention of trying to severely restrict or completely shut down the use of social media and point to this law as part of a larger pattern of online crackdowns throughout Africa.
Social Media and Hate Speech in Kenya
In addition to preventing cyber crime, the government claims that its other major concern is ensuring that social media can’t be used to spread hate speech. Unfortunately, this has already become quite a major problem inside the country. After the hotly contested 2007 election, violence amongst competing ethnic groups resulted in more than 1,200 deaths. Similarly, the government noted a huge increase in online hate speech in the months before and after the 2013 election.
The Political Component of the Law
All of this makes the government’s claim that the law is designed to help stop hate speech more credible. However, the Kenyan government has previous history with using internet laws to crack down on bloggers and others who either support the opposition or openly criticize the president. This history has forced government officials to publicly state that the new law won’t be used to target opposition bloggers. Nonetheless, the fact that the government is currently trying to ensure that the new law is put in place before the August 2017 elections has many worried that it is simply an excuse to ensure the ruling party remains in power.
Until the law is actually put into place, it is virtually impossible to judge how it will be used or what the effect will be. Nonetheless, as it seems almost certain that the Kenyan parliament will pass the law, we won’t have to wait all that long until we begin finding out these answers.