Kenya’s Digital Dilemma: Navigating the Shadows of Internet Censorship — Are We Becoming the Censors?

Madegwa
7 min readNov 20, 2023

The internet is a fascinating tool that forms the backbone of many of our interactions and lives today. But we all know that for all the good that the internet can do, there are also immeasurable vices taking place here. Bad actors, unsafe content, the list is endless.

Leaving the moderating task to these platforms, many which aren’t subject to intricate laws that apply to individual countries has proven futile for the most part and this is where censorship comes in.

Different countries have varying levels of internet freedom, and Africa is no exception. Several African countries have faced challenges related to internet censorship, which can take various forms, including content filtering, website blocking, and restrictions on online expression.

Recently, we’ve seen Telegram going down for Kenyans for hours at a time and investigations suggest that these outages were being occassioned deliberately in an attempt to curb the rampant examination leakages being shared on the platform.

While these reasons seem noble, I am alarmed that this might set a precedence and we might end up in a situation similar to what our Neighbours in Uganda and our friends from Zimbabwe routinely find themselves in.

So what have been some of the reasons for censorship in Africa? Let’s explore.

Government Control

In some African countries, governments have been known to exert control over the internet to curb dissent, control information flow, or maintain political stability. This can involve blocking access to certain websites, restricting social media, or monitoring online activities.

According to a report by Surfshark, a Netherlands-based company, six African nations, including the conflict-affected Sudan, implemented internet restrictions within their borders in the initial half of 2023. This represents twice the number of countries compared to the same period in 2022 1.

Cases of countries restricting internet access have been rising. Tanzania restricted access to the internet and social media applications during elections in October 2020. In June that year, Ethiopia imposed an internet shutdown which lasted for close to a month after unrest which followed the killing of a prominent Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa. Zimbabwe, Togo, Burundi, Chad, Mali and Guinea also restricted access to the internet or social media applications at some point in 2020 2.

In 2019, there were 25 documented instances of partial or total internet shutdowns, compared with 20 in 2018 and 12 in 2017, according to Access Now, an independent monitoring group. And the group says that in 2019, seven of the 14 countries that blocked access had not done so in the two previous years (these were Benin, Gabon, Eritrea, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania and Zimbabwe.) 2.

It is important to note that internet shutdowns can have significant economic costs. For instance, Chad lost $125.9m when the government blocked social media access for 4,728 hours (197 days) while Ethiopia lost $56.8m in its fourth consecutive internet shutdown which lasted 14 days. Sudan incurred the highest cost when the government shut down the internet for 65 days 3.

Social Media Shutdowns

Some governments have resorted to shutting down social media platforms during periods of political unrest or elections to prevent the spread of information or to curb the organization of protests. This has been seen in countries like Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Legislation and Regulation

Some countries have enacted laws that empower governments to regulate online content. These laws may be vague and open to interpretation, potentially leading to censorship of dissenting voices. For example, Nigeria passed the “Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Act” in 2019, which has been criticized for its potential impact on freedom of expression.

The “Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Act” was passed by the Nigerian government in 2019. The act seeks to regulate online content and criminalize the use of social media to spread false or malicious information 123. The act has been criticized for its potential impact on freedom of expression and access to information, as it may be used to censor dissenting voices and stifle public debate 1. The act has also been criticized for its vague and broad provisions, which may be open to interpretation and abuse by the authorities 2.

For instance, the act empowers the government to issue “access blocking orders” to internet intermediaries and providers of mass media services, which may result in the shutdown of the internet or social media platforms 1. The act also imposes heavy fines and prison sentences on individuals who violate its provisions, including the transmission of false declarations of fact, the provision of services for the transmission of false declarations of fact, and the use of bots for the transmission of false declarations of fact 1.

It is important to note that the act has not been fully implemented yet, and its impact on internet freedom and human rights remains to be seen. However, some civil society groups and internet users have criticized the act and called for its repeal or amendment 3.

Access to Information

In some regions, limited infrastructure and economic challenges can result in restricted access to the internet. Rural areas may have poor connectivity, limiting access to information and online resources.

Surveillance

Governments in some African countries have been reported to conduct online surveillance on their citizens, monitoring online activities and communications.

Some of the most glaring examples of online surveillance in Africa today are:

Are we One of these people?

According to a report by Freedom House, internet freedom in Kenya declined during the coverage period, with courts upholding a law that restricts online speech amid persistent arrests for online activity. Data privacy remains a concern for Kenyans, as a new data protection law contains broad exemptions that authorize government access 1.

In addition, Kenya passed the “Computer and Cyber Crime Act” in 2018, which aims to combat cybercrime and protect personal data. However, the law has been criticized for its vague provisions and potential impact on privacy and freedom of expression. The law criminalizes the publication of false information or hate speech online, but does not explain what constitutes hate speech in this context. It also grants the government sweeping powers to access and intercept data, monitor online activity, and block or remove content 2.

It is important to note that online surveillance can have negative impacts on human rights, democracy, and development, as it can violate the right to freedom of expression and access to information, as well as hinder the participation of citizens in public affairs and the accountability of leaders.

The government shutting down Telegram is the latest blatant violation of human rights, but also a threat to democracy, accountability, and development. Internet censorship undermines the ability of citizens to access information, express themselves, participate in public affairs, and hold their leaders accountable.

Nairobi, Kenya prides itself for being the African Silicon Savanna. Such acts only go to taint this image and hampers the growth of the digital economy, which relies on innovation, creativity, and openness.

As a blogger and a citizen of Kenya, I urge the government to respect and protect internet freedom as a fundamental right and a public good. I also call on fellow internet users to stand up for their online rights and resist any attempts to silence or censor them. We’d much rather speak out now before the Government thinks they can get away with it, gets cocky and shuts down the internet altogether during the next elections.

Together, we can make sure that the internet remains a free and open space for all Kenyans.

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