Lawmakers in Kenya have outlined new rules and guidelines for posting on social media, in the bid to prevent the use and spread of hate speech on with regards to the upcoming elections next month. The guidelines are also aimed at promoting a more responsible use of social networks in the East African country. The guidelines were made available to the public yesterday.

However, the Kenyan media and the international body known as Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) worry about what this action actually signifies for freedom of speech in Kenya.

Last month, amidst preparations for the August 8 elections, the Kenyan government asked members of the public to present their views on what they believe to be acceptable guidelines to deal with hate messages circulating via social media. These submissions were then reviewed by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) and the Communications Authority (CA), government agencies charged with overseeing broadcasting and communications, as well as promoting national unity.

Some of the provisions in the guidelines include the censorship of political messages deemed abusive, insulting, and confusing, amongst other unacceptable terms, and give mobile service providers permission to suppress messages that are found to fall in the aforementioned categories. Individuals or bodies in contravention of any of the submissions in the guidelines face up to three years in jail or the payment of one and five million Kenyan shillings, for spreading hate speech and publishing “inciting material”, respectively.

Angela Quintal, CPJ’s African Programme Coordinator posits that these new guidelines may spark fear among the general public, and inhibit free and fair reportage and commentary on political events in Kenya. Quintal’s concern is relevant in the face of a main provision in the social media guidelines which requires potential commenters, bloggers, reporters, and media houses to obtain permission from the governing bodies 24 hours before they intend to publish their messages.

Kenya is presently shrouded in a fair amount of tension in connection to the upcoming general elections. Concerns about the outcome and a post-election violence as witnessed in the recent past are being raised and discussed. Allegations of intimidation are being made, and interestingly, the role of the Kenyan youth and the Internet have been analysed.

Therefore, with the introduction of these new set of social media guidelines, the anxiety over whether the Kenyan authorities are genuinely interested in pursuing aggression-free elections, or simply looking to gain control over the political atmosphere in the country during election season is meaningful.

Ms. Quintal however went beyond the expression of concern to asking the Kenyan authorities to untighten the leash placed on journalists and political onlookers alike.

On another hand, the legal grasp and extent of the guidelines have been criticised by lawyers, with emphasis placed on the vagueness of the provisions as well as the contravention of the human and legal rights of Kenyans.

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