HumanIPO Debate: Should Kenya’s government screen SMSes ahead of General Elections?

Kenya’s communications regulator the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) last month spelled out tough rules expected to curb hate speech ahead of the country’s general elections slated for March 4 next year. HumanIPO’s Kamau Mbote and Vince Matinde debate the pros and cons of CCK’s move.


Kamau: The government should screen texts in build up to elections

The best way to stop a chaotic reaction, and for this case hate speech by politicians, is to ensure the message intended for transmission is regulated before it gets to the designated audience.

According to the new rules, content service providers who send the messages will have to submit SMSs for vetting to the mobile service providers at least 48 hours before sending. The CCK also banned transmission of political messages to end-users who are not subscribed for the service to shield them from receiving spam messages.

The commission further banned transmission of anonymous political messages giving the mobile service providers the right to decline from transmitting political messages viewed as violating the law.

Toward this endeavour, the CCK however seems to be faced by great challenges. Who will bring a message intended to incite the public directly to a government agency? In addition, by letting any hate message to be transmitted (after vetting) leaves the burden of guilt on the regulator — and its director general for that matter.

It is widely viewed that the director general will then push his junior officers to ensure the messages are screened. Besides, the commission has a sizeable number of journalists working in the organization, some of who were poached from the Kenya broadcasting commission, after the CCK was chopped off the national broadcaster.

These are communication experts the public expects to understand media laws and ethics governing communications industry.

There is also likelihood that anyone who has his message blacklisted from transmission could be exposed to the public, thus a big blow to his integrity and to his political party, which is also supposed okay the message before it gets to the CCK.

The commission wants to have its power thumped in the communications industry with a number of media stations and giant telecoms companies that seem to wield much say than the commission.

Remember the refusal to renew the tenure of Charles Njoroge, the former director general, is believed to have been pushed by forces in the telecommunications sector following his stand on the mobile termination rates glide path.

The CCK has a chance to mend its mistakes having let the media and the telecommunications industry carry on work under little supervision in 2007, when hate messages are believed to have fuelled the 2007/2008 post election violence (PEV) in Kenya. This time round, CCK can cleanse its dented image.

The CCK will want to show the public that it is independent as stipulated by The Kenya Communications Act (No. 2 of 1998), and as amended by the Kenya Communications (Amendment) Act, 2009, providing the framework for regulating the communications sector in Kenya.

The CCK will want to seem free from politicians with the appointing of directors to the board by the minister for information making CCK seem to be controlled by politicians.

Vince: The government should not screen texts. It’s a privacy breach.

To the run up to the general elections, many concerns have been put up in the case of hate speech. With evolved technology, hate speech is becoming more technologically savvy.

With this, the Kenyan government on several occasions warned that it will have to intervene and check every text message that goes out to the public. It also sought to put stringent punishment on anyone caught sending hate messages through text messages.

The CCK also aims to check bulk text messages that will go out. This is to be done within 48 hours. Now, expediency is the advantage of this medium. Having a campaign message delayed for 48 hours would mean that some messages would lose meaning. Companies that provide these services would lose meaningful customers who deem the process as a breach of their rights.

However, who is to blame here? Is it the technology that allows this sought of spread of hate speech or is it the citizens. One old saying goes, “guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people”, just to underscore where the Kenyan problem lies.

Censoring messages by the government is not only the wrong way to address an issue. It is also almost impractical. Questions are raised as to whether the government has the machinery to screen all incoming texts and to ascertain the level of hate speech.

Whereas private companies such as Safaricom have underlined the policies of sending bulk messages to the public, individual subscribers will feel that their right to privacy has been breached. This will make the use of text message as a form of communication to decrease, with many feeling exposed.

The body mandated to make sure cohesion in the various media is maintained has since failed to even curb hate speech on social media channels as Facebook and Twitter. Daily, derogatory remarks on various tribes are celebrated with like and retweets with little government interference. This underlines the point that screening texts is close to impossible for the government.

Kenya has 42 tribes. Texts are not only written in Kenya’s official languages: English and Kiswahili. What happens when texts are read in different tribes with definite differing contextualisation? Will the government employ various members of different tribes to check the incoming texts? Is this practical considering that it is four months to the general elections?

The government should instead concentrate on efforts that will bring Kenyans to TRULY embrace nationalism and tolerance rather than try to disrupt progressive technologies such as text messaging.

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