Keen interest in Kenya’s election cyberspace
Publish date: 09 August 2017
Issue Number: 1695
Diary: Legalbrief eLaw
There is a growing trend of governments around the world restricting the Internet in times of trouble and Africa is no exception. Legalbrief reports that with Kenya on a knife-edge following yesterday’s high-stakes poll, analysts are monitoring the East African nation’s cyberspace closely. After all, the recent murder of a high-ranking electoral official responsible for information technology has served notice that the country could once again be affected by post-poll carnage. Chief electoral officer, Ezra Chiloba, also said a results screen at the counting centre last night froze because too much data was being received, and that tallies would be updated later this morning. Kenya's High Court yesterday ruled that threats of shutting down media houses or entities for announcing figures different to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission are premature. The Daily Nation reports that Justice George Odunga issued the judgment in a case in which Africog, together with its director Gladwell Otieno, sued two Cabinet secretaries and the Communications Authority's director-general while challenging threats of shutting down any media house or entity which announces unofficial poll results. Eighteen months ago, when neighbouring Uganda held a crucial poll, the government shut down access to major social media sites. Five months later, Turkey experienced a similar incident during the attempted overthrow of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A report on the allAfrica site notes that while Nairobi has stressed that it doesn't intend to shut down the Internet during – or after – the poll, that doesn't mean it can't happen. The Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission recently denounced any attempts to shut down the Internet, claiming that it would cripple its transmission of results. BBC News reports that the success of the commission’s computerised voting system is key to the process being considered free and fair. If it fails – as it did in 2013 – the votes will be counted manually, and in a country where vote-rigging has been alleged in the past, the loser will no doubt challenge the result.
A commission led by former SA judge Johann Kriegler was set up to ensure that there would be no repeats of previous election violence. The commission made several critical findings, including identifying double voter registration and ballot stuffing. Its report also made a number of recommendations. The main one was that technology should be used in future elections to avoid manipulation of the process. The Kenyan Government acted on the recommendations and elections electronic systems were put in place by the time of the 2013 poll. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were system failures which led to another contested outcome. This was finally settled by the Supreme Court. In an analysis on the News24 site, John Walubengo notes that the issue has become a particularly hot topic in the wake of the government’s decision to allow for a backup manual system to kick in if the technology fails again.
Candidates this weekend made their final push by holding massive rallies ahead of the close of campaigning. A report on the News24 site notes that President Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, Deputy President William Ruto slated opposition leader Raila Odinga for flagging the possibility of election-rigging. This after Odinga hit back at an alleged police raid – carried out on a Nasa tallying centre in the capital on Friday night – during which 20 computers were removed, as well as servers and mobile phones. The tallying centre was set up to prevent election rigging. Police have denied knowledge of the raid.
With the two frontrunners – Kenyatta and Odinga – tied in recent polls, fake news bulletins were mocked up to simulate international news outlets, including the BBC and CNN, in an attempt to sway voters. Western media and social media outlets, for instance CNN and Facebook, soon launched counter-attacks against the bogus reports and offered guidance for voters to identify fake reports. However, the fake news is still overwhelming. Ninety percent of Kenyans surveyed in July believed they had seen or heard deliberately bogus news, according to GeoPoll. In a Global Times analysis, Liu Lulu notes that online rumours are a new headache for developing countries. ‘While the West advocates democracy and cyber freedom, Kenya is not capable enough to put online speech under effective regulation and supervision, and as a result, rumours sprawl. Regulation is more important than so-called online freedom. Effective regulation of online speech is especially significant for developing countries such as Kenya that are undergoing economic takeoff. Denying fake news is not enough, and the West has the responsibility to help Kenya supervise online content. Meanwhile, developing countries should strengthen cooperation in this regard so as not to be misled by the West. They ought to shift their attention from "freedom" to supervision.’
Meanwhile, the murder of Chris Msando, the high-ranking electoral official responsible for information technology, has heightened fears of violence. An autopsy revealed that Msando had been severely tortured and strangled to death. The chief government pathologist said he had deep scratches and cuts on his back and hands. BBC News reports that Msando was in charge of Kenya's computerised voting system. His body was discovered next to the corpse of a woman in a forest on the outskirts of Nairobi at the weekend. Government spokesperson Eric Kiraithe has dismissed earlier reports that three suspects had been arrested. The US and UK issued a joint statement expressing grave concern at the tragedy.