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Guest Column: Fake News and Public institutions

By Jacob Nyongesa

In the recent past misinformation, disinformation and fake news has been on the increase in Kenya. More often than not the messages target government institutions.

In the run up to the two last elections the term “fake news” was widely used in Kenya. Facebook, Whats App and Twitter are perhaps the three most popular social media platforms in Kenya, and are commonly used to share opinions, predictions and fabrications alike before and after the election

The latest example is the Ministry of Interior, on their official twitter handle sought to make it clear that the purported Gazette Notice being shared online was indeed a fabrication and Monday 28th was not a public holiday as claimed in the fabricated notice.

This form of misinformation continues to be a challenge to most governments and Kenya is no exception.

Government’s efforts to fight Misinformation

On May 16, 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed a bill criminalizing 17 different types of cyber crimes, including cyber bullying, espionage and computer forgery. Misinformation also made the cut. If found culpable of sharing false and misleading information a hefty fine of 5 million shillings or a jail term of twenty years as punishment will be meted.

Different organizations including Committee to Protect Journalists and Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE) came out against this law, saying that it would “criminalize free speech, with journalists and bloggers likely to be among the first victims.”

The matter still awaits the determination in the corridors of justice.

There are some countries world over that have even stiffer penalties on use of online platforms to spread false and misleading information. However, the question is whether those tough penalties will bear fruits in the long run.

In Tanzania for example the “Electronic and Postal Communications Regulation 2018” was enacted giving the government the right to revoke permit if a site publishes content “that leads to public disorder”, among many other (questionable) restrictions.

In Uganda a new tax was introduced that charges citizens for the ability to use social media platforms. The law came into effect on July 1, 2018.

These are interesting developments in the region. Kenya’s parliament is also in the process of considering some critical amendments to the Kenya Information and Communication Act 2012 to introduce stiff regulations on the entire social media arena. Clearly, traditional governments are seemingly fearful of the power of social media and its liberal nature.

Possible solutions to government and media houses

False information on online platforms is most probably fueled by the fact that public information is not readily available leaving room for speculations and innuendos. Journalist across Kenya keep sharing on how difficult it is to access necessary data from government bureaucracies to corroborate their stories. It is worse for the rest of mwananchi.

Public institutions need to realize that one of the solutions to stopping fake news in Kenya is being transparent and making access to public information easy.

Further, there is need to implement the recommendation of the report by the ICT’s Task Force on Government Communication.

Government institutions must find means of collaboration and partnership with organizations that have interest in fact checking like Face Book, Google and Africa Check.

Independent traditional news outlets cannot avoid this problem; they are the key to addressing false information because only they can credibly verify the news being circulated on social media.

Finally, the growth of the mobile phone and accelerating internet penetration in Kenya is a catalyst to the growth and exposure of masses to misinformation and disinformation. Governments there need to find solutions between the delicate balancing of wanting to regulate everything internet and simultaneously promoting freedom of expression. A perfect approach would be employment of stakeholder-drive solutions.

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