Kenya is set to hold its third general elections since the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution on 9 August 2022. As with any general election around the world, there has been a good deal of nervous anticipation ahead of polling day. ARTICLE 19’s Eastern Africa regional office has described the country as being on a ‘cliff’s edge’, and not for the first time.
Although tensions between candidates, corruption, and a fear of violence erupting have contributed to an overriding pessimism towards the election, with many voters feel change is unlikely, the election represents a vital opportunity for Kenya to address some of these endemic problems and to strengthen their troubled democracy.
Kenya’s young voters have been particularly disenchanted. Sick of the long-running political battles and unkept promises, many have said they won’t bother to turn up at the ballot box. Some have even said it’s their form of protest.
And protest is a key issue, given the fact that Kenyans are still widely denied that basic right, despite the country being a signatory to international conventions and treaties that safeguard it. Instead, Kenyans who go out on the streets to make their voices heard are routinely harassed, intimidated and arrested. On 2 June this year, police opened fire on protesters in Kajiado County, resulting in the deaths of four people. No one was held accountable for the violence.
Less than 24 hours before polling stations were due to open, reports emerged that Rift Valley regional authorities were cracking down on peaceful protests.
“The right to protest is guaranteed under Article 37 of the Kenyan Constitution,” a joint statement by ARTICLE 19 and other civil society and media freedom organisations said in response to the blocking of protests. “Twelve years after the promulgation of a very progressive Bill of Rights in the Kenyan Constitution, it is disappointing that rights are still treated as privileges. This right to protest is also guaranteed under regional and international human rights instruments ratified by Kenya, including Article 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Banjul Charter) and Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Harassment of journalists and Big Tech’s flawed policies
Journalists covering election campaigns have faced harassment and several have been denied access to information. According to monitoring data by ARTICLE 19, over 42 journalists have been attacked in the line of duty. Politicians and their allies have resorted to using harassment, intimidation and even violence towards journalists and media houses whenever they feel misrepresented. In recent months, journalists have been kicked out of political party meetings. These issues are alarming as they infringe on freedom of the media.
Another chief concern has been about communication, media and information about the election. Social media has, unsurprisingly, played a key role, but coverage and information has been far from consistent or reliable. As Mugambi Kiai, director of ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa has written: ‘Just as we cannot understand the risks of post-election violence in 2022 without understanding 2007, it is impossible to discuss the health of Kenyan democracy today without discussing the social media titans.’ Although social media platforms can play a valuable role in sharing information, we also know that Big Tech — in particular Meta – have not been transparent in their takedown policies, resulting in unequal access and huge numbers of people being blocked from having a voice, just when it matters most. When profit is the overriding goal, the outcome is disastrous, allowing misinformation, hate and incitement to violence to thrive online. Meta and other tech companies have invested far too little in reliable content moderation policies in Kenya and so many other countries around the world, and this must change.
Uphold human rights during election periods
As the country prepares to go to the polls, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa urges the Kenyan government to honour fundamental democratic rights. We, together with partner organisations, call for an end to hostile rhetoric that stigmatises peaceful protests, and for the right to peacefully protest to be upheld. Authorities’ responses to crisis must be based on human rights, and they must respect the Constitution of Kenya, as well as Regional and International Human Rights Standards.
“We continue to call upon all citizens, political actors to embrace non-violence and the principle of peaceful assemblies at all times,” the joint statement reads. “Our democracy is safer, richer when we all respect our constitutional rights and responsibilities.”
Whatever the outcome, the newly-elected leaders will have a unique opportunity to address the country’s deep-rooted problems, and build on and strengthen the nation’s democratic values. We urge them to publicly restate the government’s commitment to upholding freedom of expression and media.
Find out about ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa’s #FreeToProtest campaign
Kenya is ranked 68 out of 161 countries in the 2022 Global Expression Report – ARTICLE 19’s annual review of the state of freedom of expression and the right to information around the world.