What Americans can learn from East Africa’s fractious year online
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When the Kenyan presidential elections confirmed a second term for the now former President Mwai Kibaki in December 2007, violence and rioting engulfed the country. Accusations of electoral manipulation led to targeted ethnic violence, reaching a horrific peak when 50 people—including women and children—were burned alive after seeking refuge inside a church in the western city of Eldoret. Instances like this were spreading across remote parts of the country, far away from international media and from local governments that can suppress its coverage.
Appealing to fellow advocates, Kenyan activist Ory Okolloh pleaded on her blog, “Any techies out there willing to do a mash-up of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?” Over the course of that weekend, several bloggers created Ushahidi, a crisis-mapping platform detailing reports of violence via text messages or the web. The platform has since been used to monitor sexual harassment in Egypt, civilian attacks in Syria, and now post-election harassment in the United States, where more than 300 incidences of intimidation and harassment have been documented—mostly directed at immigrants and black Americans—since President-elect Donald Trump’s win.
Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, aims to fill the gap when the police and media fail to fully report these occurrences. Though the United States ranked 41st in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, to a large degree due to the government’s hostility towards whistleblowers, that ranking will be challenged by the upcoming administration of president-elect Trump, a man determined to reintroduce wiretapping, blacklist media outlets, and change libel laws to ease criminal prosecution of journalists. Trump follows in the footsteps of his ally, President Putin, who recently jailed journalist Sergei Reznik after his highly publicized reporting on corruption. Actions like these led Russia’s ranking to drop to 147th place in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index. Freedom of press and expression seems to be experiencing a nervous regression globally, and the severe backslides currently plaguing East Africa suggest a few alarming trends are on the rise.
The LGBT Community Faces Intense Censorship in Kenya
At a forum held by the Kenya Film and Classification Board in October, entertainers and those in the creative industry were invited to discuss national censorship laws and the proposed Films, Stage Plays, and Publications Act of 2016. The bill, which now extends to online content in Kenya, proposes strict regulations with harsh penalties and fines for those attempting to sidestep the boundaries. As expected, a majority of the audience regarded it as an attack on artistic expression and believes it to be harmful to Kenya’s creative community. One of the most vocal objectors in the congested theater was George Barasa, a gay gospel singer whose music has been routinely taken down from SoundCloud and YouTube on the grounds of pornographic and obscene presentation, despite no visual or lyrical evidence to support the claim.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Barasa believes the vitriolic monitoring of LGBT content is a covert effort to identify and monitor gay people in Kenya and their support networks.[/quote]
“He goes banning anything that’s gay,” George Barasa told GOOD, referring to Ezekiel Mutua, the incongruous CEO of the KFCB. Mutua has earned a reputation for belligerent Twitter feuds (sound familiar?), as well as his homophobic policies. This past summer, he banned a girls-only nightclub event, dismissing it as an “orgy of lesbians.” He banned Stories of Our Lives, a documentary about the Kenyan LGBT community, and most recently, he placed an embargo on artists with stage names such as Wakatimba (Behind) and Maima (Holes)—that he deemed too obscene for the public. Barasa says, “When we sought clarification, he (Mutua) said, ‘I don’t have anything against the LGBT community; there is no personal vendetta.’ But what he’s seeing doesn’t have objectionable moral values like he claims.”
Barasa’s most popular music video, a cover of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love,” contains visuals of pride marches and gay and lesbian couples showing affection and taking selfies together in a country where homosexuality is still illegal. The KFCB contacted Google to remove the video, but Google objected to the allegation that it incorporated graphic and obscene imagery. Similarly, in December, American trans rapper Mykki Blanco faced the same scrutiny and eventual censoring of his music video for “Loner.” In both Barasa and Blanco’s cases, a verification warning is now presented before their videos play, specifying potentially inappropriate images.
Barasa and many other LGBT entertainers have been blocked from all of Ezekiel Mutua’s social media, as well as having been disinvited from future KFCB forums which they initially had to gate-crash. Barasa believes this move exemplifies the government’s attempts to stifle community involvement in Kenyan media. Barasa believes the vitriolic monitoring of LGBT content is a covert effort to identify and monitor gay people in Kenya and their support networks. “He’s working from one county to another seeking signatures and supporters by using religious grounds to get them,” says Barasa, “You will be silenced under these claims of moral values.”
Social Media Users Feel Powerless in Uganda
By the time the Ugandan presidential election reached its final leg in early 2016, the nation was submerged in political discourse overseeing the potential removal of the increasingly authoritarian incumbent president Yoweri Museveni from an almost 30-year hold in office. Like most elections in the 2010s, social media engagement spiked immeasurably. The first-ever televised presidential debate had taken place, but heavier discussions were thriving on Twitter. Meanwhile, caustic political blogs and Facebook posts became authorities on fact-checking and disproving remarks made by politicians.
At the center of the online political concentric circle was the Twitter hashtag #UgandaDecides, where users reflected on their concerns about the country’s state of democracy. To date, Uganda has never had a democratically elected leader. Since gaining independence in 1962, all of the country’s leaders either obtained power by monarchical measures or through military coups. Such was the case with Museveni, who won this past election, granting him a fifth term in office. Some used the opposing hashtag, #MuseveniDecides, to predict and resist his win.
“Sovereign power still reigns in Uganda despite technological advancements, despite increased online engagement,” reflects Thandi Mbire in her post-graduate paper, “Communication Power Under an Illiberal Democracy.” Mbire observed the forced shutdown of social media (by way of blocking mobile 3G services) on Election Day and argues that it facilitated electoral manipulation and Museveni’s win. Interviewed on TV, Museveni defended the blackout as his measure to “stop people from telling lies” and “creating trouble.” Mbire sees his reason as a front for a larger scheme. “The Ugandans engaging with the 2016 presidential election via social media were predominantly the youth,” she says, “with several media outlets reporting that opposition campaigns were attracting the most young voters.” These voters who grew up under Museveni saw the opposition, particularly Amama Mbabazi, as symbolizing the agency that they had been denied under Museveni’s rule.
Resistant to the suppression, Ugandans reacted to the blackout with scattered efforts of ingenuity. Mbabazi and several radio stations tweeted instructions on using a virtual private network that masked a user's location, leading to both #UgandaDecides and the now satiric #MuseveniDecides to continue trending throughout the day.
Internet Blockages Leave Ethiopians in the Dark
Ethio Telecom is Ethiopia’s government-owned telecommunication company and the only way to access internet in the country. According to the non-profit index Freedom House, Ethiopia only ranks above Iran, Syria, and China in terms of internet freedom. Only 3.7 percent of Ethiopians have access to the internet, and those that do, have to perform a delicate dance with Ethio Telecom as the government deploys invasive monitoring and surveillance to maintain control of its population. The U.K. government plans to enact similar measures, thanks to the recently passed Investigatory Powers bill, which legalizes the monitoring of browser history for up to a year. Ethiopia has routinely blocked opposition party websites, blogs, and international publications, and bloggers and activists continuously face threats of arrest and imprisonment.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Bloggers and activists continuously face threats of arrest and imprisonment.[/quote]
Currently, Ethiopia is a barren digital enclave. Since October, the Ethiopian government has issued a six-month state of emergency that includes shuttering internet access, criminalizing Facebook usage, and banning the protest gesture of raised hands crossed at the wrist—a symbol that reached international eyes with marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa at the Rio Olympics. This follows protests that have been going on since November 2015 and have mostly occurred in the Oromia region, where over 500 people were killed after demanding the release of political prisoners and an end to the dehumanization of the Oromo people.
The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, justifies the shutdown as a measure to minimize comments that oppose or are critical to the government. For example, police arrested Ambo University lecturer Seyoum Teshome at his home and confiscated his computer. Teshome is also a blogger who frequently comments on Ethiopian affairs on his website Ethiothinktank. In a recent The New York Times article, Teshome was quoted saying that the Rio Olympics protest was “a blow to the carefully constructed image the government has tried to project.”
How a Global Government Crackdown Translates in Trump’s New Era
Governments suppressing and heavily curating internet access and online activity for the betterment of their public image proves to be a worldwide trend. In the Philippines, a spokesman for President Duterte shared a fake story of a murdered 9-year-old girl in order to propel support for the president’s vicious war on drugs. In the United States, the now historic standoff between Apple and the FBI has raised questions on privacy and public safety. Kenyan legal researcher Ephraim P. Kenyanito points out that internet censorship and state violence goes hand in hand, saying, “Shutting down the internet often precedes or is accompanied by atrocities.” The internet already functions as a political and cultural archive: videos, images, GIFs, and documents are there indefinitely for anyone to access. Ethiopia’s shutdown was arguably triggered by a video of police brutality going viral—a similar set of circumstances that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. But how does a country like the United States, with far greater online autonomy than Ethiopia, know when these basic freedoms may be at risk?
The parallels between Trump’s tactics and those of authoritarian rulers are too blatant to ignore. With Ethiopia and Uganda, broadly defined notions of combating terrorism and anti-nationalism helped consolidate their shutdowns. Those opposing the government are often publicly vilified, and examples of this are too abundant to count. The KFCB forum went on national television to insist that the LGBT advocates were intoxicated and marred the entire event.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Free speech suppression occurs in the tight and fragile space during and after the election period.[/quote]
In the Philippines, government officials will accuse vocal critics of President Duterte’s war on drugs of being drug users themselves. And in the most surreal instance of government gaslighting, Russia attempts to rebrand their censorship systems by labeling it the “Red Web” to reinforce patriotism and conservative fears. In almost all of these cases, free speech suppression occurs in the tight and fragile space during and after the election period. Ethiothinktank is still accessible online, proving that it’s crucial for citizens—even in times of sorrow and fake news—to stay vigilant and archive what’s being said and done online. It’s proving pertinent that we hold an administration accountable for every tweet and decision made, even before stepping into office.