Evolving information controls in Kenya and Uganda

Fri, 2018-03-30 14:52

2016 ICFP fellow Grace Mutung’u reflects on her work researching information controls around election periods in Kenya and Uganda.

In many countries in Africa, long serving politicians at the local and national level have been accused of hindering real progress that would change the fortunes of the people. Elections are viewed as the people’s opportunity to make change – making them highly contested affairs. This remains true in the dawning digital age we now find ourselves in, as the evolution of mobile ecosystem in countries like Uganda and Kenya has resulted in a mobile device becoming far more than just a telephone. It now serves many other purposes such as financial inclusion, ‘street’ addressing and personal identity.

Under this environment, both Uganda and Kenya held elections in recent years. With populations primarily below the age of 35, a multitude of media platforms played a key role. Even those in rural areas connect to their peers in urban areas through radio, television and social media. The political class was therefore very interested in this demographic and sought to leverage these platforms in a variety of ways.

In Uganda for instance, the incumbent was quite active engaging younger voters on social media. Nonetheless, both social media and mobile payment systems were ultimately shutdown by the government under the auspices of “avoid spreading of rumours”- a narrative that is grounded on the ostensible need to protect a weaker section of society that is susceptible to manipulation. Post election reports found that there was no separation between the government as a policy implementer and the ruling party. Shutting down the internet and social media was acting in the ruling party’s interests. Issues from the election period, such as youth development and succession continue to play out on the internet.

In Kenya, the incumbent government undertook numerous information control approaches during its respective election period. Post-election, the government ordered the shut down of four television stations during a mock swearing in of the opposition candidate who contested the incumbent’s victory. Meanwhile, the government did not block social media platforms but instead sought to influence audiences through their own preferred content types. The government maintains an active online presence through a youth filled communications unit with the ruling party relying on a political data firm, Cambridge Analytica, to target and influence potential voters. The opposing political party hired their own political data firm.

Though the mediums have changed over time, information controls are not new in African society. The Kikuyu for example have the famous folk tale of the ogre and the new mother in which a bird spies on a homestead while the man is away. When an ogre occupies the home with the intention of enslaving the woman, the bird flies to find the man and inform him. In the present day, it is just the characters and specific surveillance apparatuses that have changed; mobile phones are now a foundation of our networked societies, and are hence a target for information controls.

Some of the control methods observed during the elections include mobile device monitoring, mandatory SIM card registration and content manipulation. States’ reasons for tightening controls typically revolve around national security and maintaining public order. Mandatory SIM card registration for instance is depicted as a panacea for crimes involving mobile phones. However, there are no safeguards to limit how the state may apply the power of surveillance.

Information controls on mobile device use affect the youth disproportionately, both economically and socially. With high levels of unemployment, many youth have small businesses reliant on mobile internet which are increasingly subject to costly administrative compliance. Furthermore, the majority of those prosecuted under Kenya’s election period guidelines on political communication were young people. Yet pundits agree that social leaders such as pastors, elders and politicians have more influence on political mobilisation than these targeted youth groups.

Going forward, these two east African states are building digitalised economies. Under newly launched identity programmes, Uganda and Kenya are setting up structures for birth to death digital identification. As the countries cross into this digitalisation period, there is a need for discourse on how the data economy could be more people-centric. Questions such as for what purposes governments may use data need to be publicly negotiated and agreed upon. For example, should data be used for further information controls or should there be a limit to what states can do with their increasingly granular knowledge on individuals? It is these sorts of questions that need answers, so crucial are they to the future of these states and their citizens. The answers will be best formulated and implemented from a multistakeholder perspective inclusive of all relevant groups, including those that have been historically disenfranchised, NGOs, minority voices, the youth, advocacy groups, encompassing the perspectives of all citizens – for it is their country, and their future.