Nairobi — On Wednesday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law a sweeping cyber-crimes act criminalising fake news and online bullying, with clauses that critics argue could stifle press freedom.
The bill imposes stiff fines and jail terms for hacking, computer fraud, forgery of data, cyber-espionage, publishing child pornography or sending pornographic content via any electronic means.
However, bloggers and media rights activists have expressed alarm over a clause which criminalises the publication of "false, misleading or fictitious data". Punishment for this can be a fine of $50,000 or up to two years in prison, or both.
Last week, the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) urged Kenyatta not to sign the bill, arguing it would make it easy for authorities to gag journalists publishing information they dislike. "Kenyan legislators have passed a wide-ranging bill that will criminalise free speech, with journalists and bloggers likely to be among the first victims if it is signed into law," said CPJ’s Africa co-ordinator, Angela Quintal.
Additionally, anyone found guilty of publishing false information that "is calculated or results in panic, chaos, or violence" or that is "likely to discredit the reputation of a person" can be fined $50,000 or jailed for up to 10 years.
Article 19, a London-based freedom of expression watchdog, in an April analysis of the bill, said it contained important additions modeled after relevant international standards. However, it also "contains several broadly defined offences with harsh sentences that could dramatically chill freedom of expression online in Kenya".
Rights activists have warned about an increasingly hostile and oppressive environment for journalists in Kenya, after a dramatic and bloody election season in 2017. "While political tensions have eased, the ability of journalists to report and comment freely continue to be undermined by state officials," Human Rights Watch said earlier this month.
In January, government closed three TV stations for a week after they tried to provide live coverage of opposition leader Raila Odinga staging a mock inauguration ceremony, a move criticised by Kenya’s foreign allies. Then in March, eight prominent columnists working for Kenya’s biggest media group, the Nation Media Group, quit over increased meddling by the government and a loss of media freedom at its outlets.