Bloggers and influencers have become an integral component of information sourcing across East Africa. The public uses blogs, privately run websites and social networks to crowdsource information from social networks, which they then publish and distribute. But it’s not all rosy for this group of content makers.
Bloggers are known for publishing information that mainstream media outlets would rather ignore. In some countries, they have become trusted defenders of freedom of expression and the public’s only way of accessing and consuming content that corporates, politicians and governments often suppress.
Perhaps because of the increasing trust in these alternative sources of information, bloggers, influencers, information activists, and owners of digital platforms in the region are constantly in trouble with the law. Every other week, they face arrests for publishing articles or videos deemed critical of the government. In extreme circumstances, authorities have shut down some of their platforms for leaking corruption scandals.
Trouble with the law
Media watchdogs often accuse bloggers and influencers of lacking quality control. They are also faulted for having limited information verification mechanisms, sharing fake or false information, sensitive documents and information (security-wise), or leaking intimate images of celebrities.
Since most bloggers are not trained journalists, they have also gained the reputation of breaking ethical rules of citizen journalism, including publishing biased reports, obtaining information by nefarious means, publishing indecent content and in some cases, extortion. All of which is contrary to journalistic expectations.
In Kenya, for instance, blogger, activist and influencer Mwalimu Mutemi Wa Kiama,48, who runs Edwin Kiama – The Wanjiku Revolution Movement has twice been arrested by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) over items he posted on social media.
To boot, he has a lot of following online, 59, 158 followers on Twitter and 31, 613 on Facebook meaning his content gets a lot.
“In the first instance, it was alleged that I altered the cover of Peter Kagwanja’s book on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s legacy. I think the real reason was a thread I had retweeted on colonial chiefs and the positions their children and grandchildren occupy in our society today,” Mutemi explains.
“The second time I was arrested, I was accused of creating a poster asking the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to stop giving loans to President Uhuru Kenyatta.”
Mutemi says he knows why bloggers and influencers are constantly arrested and harassed (more than mainstream media practitioners).
“We go where the mainstream media won’t. I am always prepared to speak truth to power once I have verified that the information I am sharing is factual despite the threat of legal action,” the blogger said, adding that he focuses on advocacy issues around social justice, social accountability and human rights.
“In the civil society sector we have organizations such as Defenders’ Coalition, Katiba Institute, Kituo Cha Sheria, Kenya Human Rights Commission, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Article 19 of the constitution and others who are ready to provide legal support for activists. Regular bloggers don’t have these.”
Bloggers are a constant target
Influential government officials, corporates with secrets, and powerful individuals who bloggers and influencers have spoken out against are known to use their money and influence to criminalize the actions of bloggers and influencers. Sometimes, this happens in cases where bloggers and influencers have not broken any laws.
Jamii Forums is Tanzania’s most popular information site. It advocates for digital rights, freedom of expression, accountability and human rights. The platform is known across the globe for two things: its online channel (Jamii Forums) that publishes crowdsourced information, and its director Maxence Melo who has been arrested more times than he can count, including in 2016 and 2008.
Melo and his co-founders started Jamii Forums in 2003 to provide a platform for the public to ‘breathe’. At the time, information sources in Tanzania were mainly media houses, but bloggers and outlets such as Jamii Forums soon joined in.
However, most Tanzanian bloggers were threatened into silence by the previous regime (led by the late President John Pombe Magufuli). Those who remain vocal to date are branded agents of Western imperialists.
The situation has slightly improved under the current administration of President Samia Suluhu Hassan. She has opened up space for people to air their views. According to Melo, social media has become a crucial source of information in the country and is probably trusted more than mainstream media outlets.
Jamii Forums boasts ministers, MPs, local politicians and millions of citizens as members. They regularly hold serious discussions, share news and are used by the public to expose government and corporate corruption anonymously.
The forum’s first national impact came in 2008 after a whistle-blower exposed a major corruption scandal. (Back then, it was known as Jambo Forums). The Richmond Energy deal corruption scandal led to the resignation of the former Prime Minister of Tanzania, Edward Lowassa, followed by the dissolution of the cabinet. Melo, who until that time had been running the site anonymously, was tracked and arrested.
In 2019, Melo was awarded the CPJ International Press Freedom Award. But he prefers to call himself an information architect or information activist. He says Jamii Forums has a legal department, and they have trained the team at the platform to understand cyberspace and its laws. When a citizen publishes any content on the site, the Jamii Forums team fact-checks it and verifies its authenticity. This is done in line with Jamii Forums’ editorial policy and the public engagement guidelines.
What bloggers and influencers need to know
According to Melo, many bloggers and influencers do not know their rights when they get arrested or interrogated. “As Jamii Forums, we are currently pursuing a new tact in fighting for digital rights in the country,” Melo says.
“We have decided to engage the judiciary to help them understand cyberspace well to appreciate why it matters and protect digital citizens (netizens).” He added that they had done this for the past two years. “We see the judiciary handling cybercrime cases differently.”
Emily Kinama, a research and litigation associate at Katiba Institute (in Kenya) and an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya, concurs with Melo’s sentiments. She, however, warns about the need for bloggers to know the legal implications of what they publish.
“A person who knowingly publishes information that is false in print, broadcast, data or over a computer system, that is calculated or results in panic, chaos, or violence among citizens of the republic, or which is likely to discredit the reputation of a person commits an offence and shall on conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding five million shillings or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years, or to both,” she says, adding that these are covered under ‘The Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act’ in Kenya.
But what exactly do bloggers and influencers need to know about data protection laws (in Kenya) regarding government institutions / public service officials and corporate, private citizens?
“Generally, they should have an understanding of the Data Protection Act, which is an Act of Parliament to give effect to Article 31(c) and (d) of the Constitution to establish the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner; to make provision for the regulation of the processing of personal data; to provide for the rights of data subjects and obligations of data controllers and processors, and connected purposes. In addition, they should understand the definitions of the different stakeholders regarding data protection as well as their rights, duties and obligations of the different players,” Emily Kinama explained in an email.
She says that journalism trainers should teach the basics of reporting ethics to bloggers and influencers. That issues such as protecting children’s identity when reporting child-related content or dealing with graphic images from tragedies like terror attacks should be clear to them.
And when it comes to revealing personal/ intimate details of people’s lives, she insists that bloggers need to know that the Data Protection Act is in place to protect people’s privacy. She also stressed the importance of bloggers understanding which materials they are allowed to use and which affect or infringe on people’s privacy.
Blogging in ‘undemocratic’ spaces
In Uganda, Henry Ndugwa, 51, a blogger with over 98,000 followers on Facebook who has never had any problem with the law, shares his secret; “I have not faced any legal challenges because I make sure I follow the laws in the course of my duty,” Ndugwa says.
“While I may go against Uganda Communications Commission censorship, I always make sure I have credible information just in case anyone opts to drag me to court.”
His blog, Kakensa Media is equally popular but is well aware of the environment bloggers in Uganda operate.
“I know we face a very big challenge of working under an undemocratic environment,” the Ugandan blogger admits. “We participate in civic education, but this comes at a price because most bloggers and influencers in the country do get arrested now and then.”
He says that Uganda’s general press freedom has declined drastically in the past ten years due to the continuous persecution and harassment of writers, journalists, and bloggers.
“I can’t travel to Uganda frequently (he is based abroad) the way I used to do before I started writing about politics. But, having seen other writers being persecuted, I also fear for my life.”
The hate speech trap
One of the main pitfalls that bloggers and influencers fall into is sharing hate speech spoken by politicians. The other is reproducing or plagiarizing work created by others. Liz Lenjo, an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a Managing Consultant at MyIP Legal Studio, says bloggers who do this open themselves up to be held responsible for spreading hate speech.
“They need to attend trainings and residencies that empower journalists and bloggers,” Lenjo says. “Through these trainings, they can be exposed to other potential business models in the media business.” She advises bloggers to find authors or creators of content if they would like to use it. “Seek permission in the form of a license. It must be in writing regardless of it being free.”
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