Status: Partly Free
Obstacles to Access: 10 (0–25)
Limits on Content: 12 (0–35)
Violations of User Rights: 9 (0–40)
Total Score: 31 (0–100)
Use of the internet and mobile telephones is relatively unfettered in Kenya, though a lack of infrastructure, both for the country’s international connection and in rural areas, poses a significant obstacle. A majority of the population was unable to access the internet in 2008 due to the high costs involved, but this is expected to change with the finalization of several broadband initiatives in 2009 and the introduction of technology allowing access via mobile phones, which are fairly widespread. Despite improving access to the internet, an amendment to the Kenya Communications Act of 1998, commonly referred to as the Communications Amendment Act, has raised concerns that online censorship and surveillance might also increase in the coming years. The measure was passed by Parliament in December 2008 and was awaiting the president’s ratification at year’s end.
Obstacles to Access
Access to the internet has been growing in recent years, and there have been no restrictions on advanced applications, but the medium remains beyond the reach of most Kenyans. The latest figures for 2008 indicate that approximately 7.9 percent of the population, or roughly three million people, had access during the year, and the penetration rate has more than doubled over the last two years.1 The spread of the internet is hampered by a poor telecommunications infrastructure and a lack of electricity, particularly in rural areas. This partly explains the disproportionately high concentration of internet subscribers in two of Kenya’s largest cities, Nairobi and Mombasa. Knowledge of information and communication technologies (ICTs) remains relatively low, and within the context of competing priorities, the cost of internet access is exorbitant for poor households, despite significant drops in prices. As of 2008, Kenya relied on expensive satellite systems to connect the country’s infrastructure with the global internet, but 2009 will mark the introduction of high-speed fiber optic cables to replace this arrangement.2 As a result, costs are expected to drop and connection speeds should rise dramatically, making the technology affordable and accessible to larger segments of the population. Some estimates anticipate an increase to 10 million users over the next five years.3
Mobile-phone penetration is significantly higher than internet penetration rates, estimated at nearly 12 million subscribers in 2008.4 Moreover, mobile-phone coverage extended to 92 percent of the country. The availability of internet access via mobile phones increased in 2008, as Safaricom, a mobile-phone service provider with 10.1 million users and an 80 percent share of the market, launched internet capabilities in Nairobi in May, with other cities and providers expected to follow in the coming year.5
Access to a variety of advanced applications is widespread, with individuals and groups able to engage in free expression of views via e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, and blogs. There have been no reports that the government uses control over internet infrastructure to limit connectivity, and Kenyans have free access to the social-networking site Facebook, the video-sharing site YouTube, and the blog-hosting site Blogspot, all of which rank among the 10 most popular sites in the country.6
Reform in Kenya’s information and communications sector has led to a new licensing framework—part of a regulatory strategy that has seen a shift from licensing based on a bidding process to open, market-based licensing. Competition has been introduced in most segments of the telecommunications market, with the effect of reducing costs and generally improving the quality of services, particularly mobile-phone services. Four mobile operators have rolled out their networks, though Safaricom still dominates the market.
The independence of a regulatory body called the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) is technically enshrined in the Communications Act, but most of the commissioners are government appointees and their independence is limited in practice. Under the Communications Amendment Act, the CCK and not the independent and professional Media Council of Kenya (MCK) would be responsible for regulating both traditional and online media.7 In light of Kenya’s recent history, including the banning of live television coverage by the government following the 2007 elections, reservations have been raised regarding the implications for free online speech should the act come into effect. Access providers have formed organizations such as the Kenyan ISP Association and the Kenya Cybercafe Owners to lobby the government for better regulations, lower costs, and increased efforts to improve computer literacy.8
Limits on Content
The government does not employ technical filtering or extensive censorship, and citizens are generally able to access a wide range of viewpoints. However, the government engaged in ad hoc efforts during 2008 to limit access to some content, including material related to corruption. In May, there were reports that some government departments were blocking access to the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission’s online whistleblower reporting facility.9 During the postelection violence in early 2008, there were also indications that the government was willing to monitor and censor both internet and mobile-based content that it felt was “inflammatory.”
Though individual internet users generally seem comfortable expressing themselves freely online, mainstream media organizations’ online portals and their correspondents practice some self-censorship. In addition, a number of bloggers and internet users reportedly chose their words with particular care during the postelection violence to avoid being victimized.
Print outlets, television, and radio continue to be the main sources of news and information for most Kenyans, though there are increasing efforts to extend mainstream news to online platforms. For example, the television stations Nation TV and KTN have used YouTube to rebroadcast news clips. Mobile phones and e-mail were used for political organization during the election campaign in 2007, and to spread ethnic hate speech both during and after the campaign period.
The internet is becoming an important forum for vibrant political debate among residents as well as Kenyans living abroad. Blogs were a crucial source for current information, images, and opinions following the ban on live television and radio broadcasts between December 30, 2007, and February 4, 2008. In particular, an online citizen journalism initiative called Ushahidi was launched during the postelection violence. Its initial purpose was to catalog incidents of violence using messages sent by ordinary citizens via their mobile phones or the internet, and to use that information to map out the unfolding events.10 Since then, Ushahidi has been used for “crowd-source” news gathering in South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.11 Other issues covered by Kenyan bloggers during the year included corporate environmental abuse,12 accusations of United Nations hypocrisy,13 and the debate over women’s reproductive rights.14
Violations of Users’ Rights
While the constitution protects freedom of expression and the “freedom to communicate ideas and information,” it also grants the government the authority to place restrictions on defamation, privileged information, and state employees “in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health.” Criminal defamation laws remain on the books in Kenya, and in 2008 the authorities used them to intimidate journalists working in traditional media, but there do not appear to have been any cases aimed at online commentators.15 In a negative development, the Communications Amendment Act was passed in December despite significant opposition from local media workers and international press freedom watchdogs. The measure, if ratified by the president, would give the government broad powers of censorship, including over certain online content.16 It would also permit the minister of internal security to authorize raids on media houses and confiscation of telecommunications equipment in the name of national security. Other provisions of the act allow for increased retention of data and its use as evidence in court.
During the violence that followed the flawed December 2007 election, the government banned all live radio and television broadcasts and warned Kenyans about circulating news via SMS (text messaging). “The Ministry of Internal Security urges you to desist from sending or forwarding any SMS that may cause public unrest,” read a message that was sent to Safaricom users. This suggested that the government had the capability to monitor mobile-phone usage if necessary, but there have been no reports of blocked mobile-phone access. The government also reportedly monitored internet content during the unrest.17
There were no reports of extralegal intimidation of journalists, bloggers, or other ICT users by state authorities or any other actor during the coverage period, though the general atmosphere of intimidation and fear surrounding the postelection violence affected online commentators as well as traditional journalists.
2 “Internet: Last piece of fibre-optic jigsaw falls into place as cable links east Africa to grid”, The Guardian, August 18, 2008, www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/aug/18/east.africa.internet accessed on March 26, 2009
3 “ Kenyan firms scramble for share of internet market”, Daily Monitor, February 26, 2009, www.monitor.co.ug/artman/publish/business/Kenyan_firms_scramble_for_share_of_internet_market_80502.shtml accessed on March 26, 2009
5 “Kenya’s Safaricom says to launch 3G service in April”, Reuters, April 3, 2008, http://in.reuters.com/article/asiaCompanyAndMarkets/idINL0339992220080403 accessed on March 26, 2009; and “Safaricom launches 3G technology”, Network World, May 27, 2008, http://www.networkworld.com/news/2008/052708-safaricom-launches-3g.html accessed on March 26, 2009
7 “Government enacts Draconian law to regulate media content, gives authorities broad powers of surveillance”, IFEX, December 15, 2008, www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/99330/ accessed on March 26, 2009
8 “Kenyan cyber café owners get together to lobby government”, Balancing Act News Update, www.balancingact-africa.com/news/back/balancing-act_96.html accessed on March 26, 2009
9 “The Kenya Anti Corruption Commission & Internet Censorship in Kenya-An Exercise in Futility”, Mars Group Kenya, May 29, 2008, http://www.marsgroupkenya.org/user/?p=110; http://wikileaks.org/wiki/Anti-corruption_whistleblowing_website_blocked_by_Kenyan_Government accessed on March 26, 2009
11 “Citizen Voices”, Forbes, December 8, 2008, http://www.forbes.com/free_forbes/2008/1208/083.html accessed on March 26, 2009
12 “Environment: Dirty Dealings and Water Masses”, Global Voices, December 1, 2008, http://globalvoicesonline.org/2008/12/01/environment-dirty-dealings-and-water-masses/ accessed on March 26, 2009
13“Yellow Humvees and the UN Procurement Scandal”, Global Voices, November 18, 2008, http://globalvoicesonline.org/2008/11/18/yellow-humvees-and-the-un-procurement-scandal/ accessed on March 26, 2009
14 “Kenya: Reproductive Rights Bill Sparks Abortion Debate”, Global Voices, August 28, 2008, http://globalvoicesonline.org/2008/08/28/kenya-reproductive-rights-bill-sparks-abortion-debate/ accessed on March 26, 2009
16 “Attacks on the Press in 2008: Kenya”, Committee to Protect Journalists, www.cpj.org/2009/02/attacks-on-the-press-in-2008-kenya.php accessed on March 26, 2009