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Kenya: Citizen Media in a time of crisis

Another day, another book chapter. No, not the book I’m hoping to write over the next n months – a book on citizen media in crisis situations being put together by a pair of academics in Britain. Given that some of the folks mentioned in this piece periodically read this blog, and that lots of readers are interested in how citizen media might be used in crisis situations, I thought I’d post a draft here in the hopes that y’all might have additions, subtractions, corrections and thoughts. Please feel free to use the comment thread to offer any thoughts you might have. Apologies in advance if I don’t respond to all comments promptly – I’m about to stop pretending to be an academic and pretend to run a global citizen media organization through its “annual” meeting.


Citizen Media and the 2007 Kenyan Election Crisis
Ethan Zuckerman, Harvard University
Draft – 6/20/2008

The crisis surrounding the disputed 2007 presidential elections in Kenya served as a stark reminder of how fragile young democracies can be. It also put into sharp focus the power new media technologies give citizens of developing nations to report news and organize responses to crisis situations. A number of Kenyans demonstrated how technically sophisticated and globally connected their country is at precisely the moment when their leaders demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice the nation’s reputation for stability in exchange for continued governing power.

While Kenyan citizen journalists and community organizers have a great deal to be proud of in their response to an electoral crisis and the concomitant ethnic violence, information technology was also used both by the government and civilians to amplify tensions and coordinate violent attacks. The technologies used by citizen reporters and community organizers were the same ones used by forces in the government who sought to rig the election, and agitators who attempted to expand ethnic violence. One lesson from the use of information technology in the Kenyan crisis is that the technology itself is neutral. It can be used powerfully to give citizens a voice in crisis situations, or used to aggravate those same crises.

A Brief History of the 2007 Elections

Mwai Kibaki became the third president of Kenya in 2002 after winning a landslide election against Daniel arap Moi, who was widely accused of corruption. Kibaki promised to address problems of government corruption and experiences some early victories, leading the IMF to resume lending. The resignation and flight of John Githongo, anti-corruption advisor, in early 2005 was a major blow, and suggested that corruption problems might be endemic to the Kibaki government.

Kibaki, who had promised a new constitution when elected, put a draft constitution up for vote in November 21, 2005. The constitution consolidated presidential power, making it easier for the President to fire uncooperative ministers. Raila Odinga led the opposition to the referendum, choosing an orange as his campaign’s symbol, opposed to the banana chosen by Kibaki. The defeat of the referendum was viewed as a major embarrasment for Kibaki as well as a precursor to a challenge by Odinga in the next presidential elections.

On December 27, 2007 presidential and parliamentary election pitted President Mwai Kibaki and his Party of National Unity (PNU) against Raila Odinga and the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). Odinga led in polls before the election. Early results showed substantial losses in parliament for the PNU, and suggested that Odinga led Kibaki – at the same time, delays in announcing election results raised concerns about possible election rigging.

Three days after the elections, the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) declared Kibaki the winner of a closely contested election, with a margin of 230,000 votes. Kibaki was quickly sworn in as President as members of the ECK held a press conference to express concerns about voting irregularities. Riots erupted in the Kibera neighborhood of Nairobi, an opposition stronghold. The new government banned live television coverage of the protests and deploying troops to keep the peace and block demonstrations. Odinga attempted to hold an alterate inauguration on December 31st, but the event was banned and Uhuru Park, where it was to be held, was sealed off by riot police.

The situation took a brutal turn on January 1st when more than 100 ethnic Kikuyu (the tribe Kibaki belongs to) were burned to death by a gang of Kalenjin, Luhya and Luo men (tribes associated with Odinga) in a church outside Eldoret, in the Rift Valley. Over the next weeks, as African and international leaders flew into the country to mediate, clashes between ODM and PNU supporters, and between Kikuyu and minority ethnic groups were responsible for more than a thousand and at up to 600,000 internally displaced persons.

In early February, as party leaders began negotiations in earnest, violence slowed, possibly reflecting the political nature of the clashes, or perhaps as a result of the separation brought about by internal migration of threatened ethnic groups. On February 28th, a power-sharing agreement mediated by Kofi Annan was signed by Odinga and Kibaki, establishing a new position of Prime Minister, to be held by Odinga. Lengthy negotiations led to agreements on composition of a new cabinet, creating seats for 40 ministers, an unprecedented and expensive number.

Digital Media in Kenya

Understanding the role of citizen media in the elections crisis requires a brief history of Kenyan digital media as well. With an estimated 3 million internet users, Kenya has one of the highest levels of internet penetration in sub-Saharan Africa, at 7.9%. (Of major sub-Saharan African countries – i.e., discounting those with populations under a million – only Zimbabwe and South Africa have higher net penetration.)

More than 12 million Kenyans – roughly 30% of the population – have mobile phones, as compared to a continent-wide penetration of 20%. Kenyan companies have been early adopters of mobile money transfer systems like M-PESA and complex SMS-based systems like Kazi560 which matches jobseekers and employers via their phones.

Against this backdrop, it makes sense that Kenyans would emerge as early adopters in citizen media. Prominent Kenyan blogs, including Daudi Were’s “Mental Acrobatics” have been online since early 2003. Starting in 2004, Kenya Unlimited has aggregated posts from individual blogs on a central site and provided a “webring”, a navigation mechanism that links related weblogs together. In 2006, a nationwide blogging contest – the Kenya Blog Awards or “Kaybees” – helped bring together individual Kenyan bloggers into a community. Afrigator, an African blog aggregator based in South Africa, cites two Kenyan blogs in its list of top twenty blogs, giving the country the second best representation on that list (after South Africa, which dominates.)

Kenyan bloggers have an influence beyond their online readership. They’ve emerged as source for ideas and stories for mainstream papers. Indeed, this influence has included cases where newspapers have taken stories, word for word, from blogs and have been forced to apologize for their plagarism. (See my paper, Meet the Bridgebloggers, for more on this story). Kenyan bloggers have not been shy about using their online platforms to agitate for political change. Ory Okolloh, author of the popular Kenyan Pundit weblog, launched Mzalendo in early 2006 , a site designed to provide increased transparency and insight into the Kenyan Parliament.

Blogging the 2007 Elections

Several Kenyan bloggers took pains to document the 2007 election, but there’s little indication from their posts that any anticipated the unusual events that would follow the election. In the midst of a thorough post describing his voting experience, and the precautions taken by the ECK to prevent election fraud, Daudi Were observed:

“One thing I noticed was that no one was wearing any political party merchandise and the conversations in the queue were distinctly non political. Rather than being divided, by queuing together to exercise our civic duty and responsibility we were bound together in a sort of patriotic camaraderie. We all felt it was worthwhile to take part in the vote and that ultimately was what mattered.”

The joy in a smooth functioning democratic process extended through the 28th, as it became clear that the elections had ousted a large number of incumbents. Ory Okolloh noted:

“Folks this is a historic election by Kenyan standards, regional standards and international standards – I don’t think there is a precedent for the number of incumbents that are going down despite having massive resources behind them and attempts to bribe voters. And I challenge you to find an election in the Western world in recent times where people have come out with such determination, conviction, and a strong sense of civic duty . I’m very very proud of Kenyan voters and you all should be no matter who you are supporting.”

The tone – and focus – of coverage changed sharply on December 30th, as it became clear that the disputed election would be declared in Kibaki’s favor. The ban on live media reports particularly incensed Okolloh, who had been monitoring TV, radio, the internet, SMS and local gossip to produce several election updates per day. When the live coverage ban was announced, she declared:

“All live broadcasts have been suspended by the government. The order was released as ODM was addressing their press conference. This is now officially a police state. So we have no idea what ODM is saying, and what the security situation is around the country. ”

In the wake of a ban on live media, some Kenyan bloggers responded by redoubling their efforts as citizen reporters. Reeling from the violence in her native Eldoret, Juliana Rotich began posting brief bulletins on
refugee movements, fuel shortages, road and airport closures. Some were posted via SMS using Twitter to disseminate messages to a wider audience; others featured photos and were uploaded to Flickr using a GPRS modem. Daudi Were took to the streets on January 3rd, following ODM activists as they attempted to march to Uhuru Park to attend a banned rally. His photos document the empty streets of the usually-bustling capital and the tense standoffs between activists and security forces, and provided insights on the confrontation hard to find in international media covering the confrontations.

As it became clear that Kenya would be in crisis for more than a few days, bloggers began to search for ways to share their workload. Okolloh, who resides in Johannesburg, returned home on January 3rd, after a difficult debate over whether she should stay to document the crisis or prioritize the safety of her young child. Three days after arriving in South Africa, she added a new feature to her blog: “diary entries” written by guest bloggers and submitted to her via email. In the month the diary was active, it featured 26 posts from a variety of Kenyans, including regular bloggers who sought an opportunity to reach a larger audience and from people who had not previously published online. The tone was sharply different from Okolloh’s opinionated, but news-focused, reports – the diaries were personal reflections on the crisis, providing context for readers interested in how the crisis was affecting individual Kenyans.

In her first post on returning to Johannesburg, Okolloh proposed another form of distributed reporting, a Google Maps mashup that showed incidents of violence reported throughout Kenya:

“Google Earth supposedly shows in great detail where the damage is being done on the ground. It occurs to me that it will be useful to keep a record of this, if one is thinking long-term. For the reconciliation process to occur at the local level the truth of what happened will first have to come out. Guys looking to do something – any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?”

The reaction to this idea, one of nine points in a long roundup, helps demonstrate Okolloh’s influence and reach in the blogger community. (Technorati lists Kenyan Pundit as the #15,282nd most popular blog in its index, a very high rank for an Africa-focused blog. At the peak of its popularity during the crisis, 0.004% of all blog posts on the internet linked to Kenyan Pundit, a level comparable to regular linking to Global Voices Online, one of the 200 most popular blogs in the world. Within three days of her January 3rd blog post, a prototype version of the system she proposed had been built. By January 9th, it was live at Ushahidi.com. (The term
Ushahidi means “witness” in Swahili.
) A day later, a partnership with Kenyan mobile phone operators allowed Kenyans to post reports using an SMS shortcode.

The authors of the Ushahidi system were, without exception, people deeply involved in Kenya’s citizen media community. David Kobia, the lead author of the system, administers Mashada.com, the leading bulletin board site for Kenyans and the Kenyan diaspora. The chief architect of the system was Erik Hershman, author of the Afrigadget and White African blogs. Bloggers Daudi Were and Juliana Rotich built partnerships with NGOs in Kenya to promote the service and generate reports from outside the web community. Hershman reports that 75% of Kenyan blogs linked to Ushahidi by January 10th, helping launch the site to local and global audiences.

Ushahidi is best understood as a form of collaborative citizen journalism. Individuals submit reports of violent incidents – as well as of peacemaking efforts – via a web form or SMS message, including details of the incident, its geographic location and supporting information, including photos or video. Ushahidi’s administrators attempt to verify reports, cross-checking against mainstream and citizen media reports, resolve multiple reports into a single record and make the reports visible on an interactive map. The result is a powerful visualization of the complexities of violence and peacemaking in post-conflict Kenya.

The Ushahidi project is now focused on creating a sustainable, open-source platform to allow citizen crisis reporting anywhere in the world. The platform was adopted in late May 2008 by United for Africa, a South African project that documents xenophobic violence. On May 28th, Ushahidi won the NetSquared N2Y3 mashup challenge, a prominent software competition which awarded the project a $25,000 first prize.

Who’s the Audience for Crisis Media?

Since Ushahidi is built by SMS and web submissions, but chiefly visible via the web, it’s worth asking whether the main audience for the site is inside or outside the country. This question is complicated by the fact that the possible audience for these projects inclues Kenyans living domestically and Kenyans in the diaspora as well as non-Kenyans. Kenya’s diaspora is a powerful political and economic force – some estimates put remittances from the diaspora at more than $1 billion US per year, more than 2% of GDP. Diaspora Kenyans have held political debates in Washington DC and stay deeply involved with national politics through groups like the Kenyan Community Abroad.

Some of the most innovative efforts in response to the Kenyan crisis were aimed, wholly or in part, in motivating the Kenyan diaspora to support reconstruction efforts. Mama Mikes, an online business that accepts payments via the web and delivers goods to addresses within Kenya (a system some have termed “alternative remittance”). During the crisis, they began offering diaspora Kenyans the opportunity to give online, purchasing relief materials which the company staff delivered to displaced persons camps in the Rift Valley. Mama Mikes documented the materials purchased on their staff blog, thanking donors by name and documenting their trip to the camps. To encourage donations and support, either through Mama Mikes or directly to the Red Cross, Juliana Rotich began photographing conditions in displaced persons camps and food distribution efforts One effect of this coverage was to add transparency to the relief efforts and reassure donors in the diaspora that goods were reaching people in need.

It’s difficult to determine the extent to which citizen media efforts affected news coverage and perceptions of Kenya outside the diaspora population. (It is beyond the scope of this essay, but a future research project might consider the extent to which Kenyan citizen journalists were cited in the mainstream press in the weeks the crisis was most intense.) But it is apparent that many Kenyans were concerned with the international perception of their country in the wake of the crisis.

A group called Concerned Kenyan Writers, led by celebrated Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, sought to organize Kenyans to write op-eds in international newspapers with intent “to present a human face to the Kenyan post-election crisis; to counter the static images and impressions of escalating violence and anarchy in the foreign press and to document this turning point in our nation’s history for posterity.” In editorials like Wainaina’s “No Country For Old Hatreds” in the New York Times, authors challenged portrayals of the crisis as an eruption of ethnic hatred, suggesting instead that the events reflected systematic manipulation of ethnic stereotypes by political parties seeking political gains. Bankelele, a popular blog focused on banking and investment in Kenya, challenged the narrative that Kenya would become another Rwanda with sober, thoughtful analyses of the implications of the crisis for Kenyan economics.

It’s also clear that many Kenyan were interested in raising their voices, either through projects like Ushahidi, Concerned Kenyan Writers, Kenyan Pundit’s diaries, or via their own blogs. On December 30, 2007 – early in the crisis – Daudi Were posted instructions on starting your own blog in response to the avalanche of comments he’d received on his own posts. Many of these comments criticized existing bloggers, or demanded that certain posts or comments be removed from the Kenya Unlimited blog aggregator. Daudi responded, “If someone writes something you disagree with by all means let your voice be heard as you present your counter view, and the best place to do this is on your own blog.” This raises another open research question: did the Kenyan elections crisis cause more Kenyans to start blogging? Will they continue beyond the crisis? Should efforts to introduce citizen media to new populations focus on crisis response efforts?

A Darker Side to Citizen Media

It’s an oversimplification to view online reactions to the Kenyan crisis purely as a proud moment for citizen media. One of the most dramatic lessons of the crisis is that technologies useful for reporting and peacemaking are also useful for rumormongering and incitement to violence.

As the Kenyan crisis unfolded, many cellphone owners received SMS messages that urged them to drive neighbors from their houses: “If your neighbor is a Kikuyu, just kick him or her out of that house. No one is going to ask you anything.” Messages included expressions of ethnic hatred, warnings that one ethnic group would attack another, and rumors that implicated Kenyan companies and institutions in promoting violence. The Nation Media Group, a major Kenyan media company, was forced to issue a press release specifically to counter rumors that its vehicles were being used to transport arms throughout the country to increase violence.

Kenyan mobile phone operators cooperated with the Kibaki government to send messages to subscribers, urging them not to send or forward inflamatory messages. Juliana Rotich reported receiving the following message on her mobile phone in Eldoret: “The ministry if Internal security urges you to please desist from sending or forwarding any SMS that may cause public unrest. This may lead to your prosecution”. On January 1, 2008 Ory Okolloh reported “Bulk sms has been blocked by the government to prevent guys from sending inciteful messages.”

Firoze Manji, a Kenyan human rights activist and editor of Pambazuka News, pointed out that these messages from the government had the effect of challenging legitimate political organizing via mobile phone. Blocking bulk SMS may have been intended to stop spreading ethnic hatred, but it also created obstacles for the ODM as they attempted to organize rallies and protests. Manji was particularly offended by a message from Kibaki shortly after he was inaugurated, urging all Kenyans to remain calm: “How did Kibaki get my phone number? This is a major breach of privacy.”

The ministry of information may have been premature in threatening prosecution for forwarding messages that incited violence. The Nation reported on March 1, 2008 that the government had compiled a list of 1700 people who had forwarded messages that incited ethnic violence. However, “there is no law governing hate speech over mobile phones, radio and television.” Groups like the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights have been pushing such a law, unsuccessfully. It’s possible that concerns about the role of SMS in the crisis situation may reopen debate on electronic hate speech.

Ethnic incitement wasn’t limited to SMS messages. Bloggers discovered that their comment threads were becoming increasingly hostile and featured many hateful sentiments, sometimes expressed in tribal languages so as to be understandable only to members of that group. Daudi Were’s post on January 4th, 2008, outlining the guidelines to comment on his site left little doubt about the content he was being forced to moderate:

“I am not here to spoon feed you or even debate with you what does or does not make valid commentary. My younger cousins who are just out of their teens and about to join high school know the difference between intellectual and valid commentary and hate speech. So do you. I will not enter into a lengthy debate on whether your comment, that we should “finish” this or that tribe is valid because of some socio-economic-political-historical injustice you quote. For crying out loud our country is burning. You fuel the flames here and I will burn your comment, i.e. I will delete it.”

Moderation problems became so intense on Mashada, Kenya’s leading bulletin board site, that David Kobia had to take extraordinary steps. He shut down the site for a cooling-off period, and briefly explored paying moderators to continue their work, as they were quickly resigning after trying to cope with floods of hateful messages. On January 29th, he shut the forum down entirely, noting “Facilitating civil discussions and debates has become virtually impossible.”

A few days later, Kobia launched a new site, I Have No Tribe. Like Ushahidi, it was centered on a Google Maps mashup. However, this mashup showed posts from Kenyans around the country and around the world wrestling with the statement, “I have no tribe… I am Kenyan.” Kobia redirected the Mashada site to the new site, and it rapidly filled with comments – combative as well as supportive, as well poems and prayers. Kobia reopened the forums on February 14th, having elegantly demonstrated that one possible response to destructive speech online is to encourage constructive speech.

4 Responses to “Kenya: Citizen Media in a time of crisis”

  1. hash says:

    Ethan, that’s an incredible write-up, I don’t know if any of us directly involved could have put it any better.

    Time will answer some of your questions on the Ushahidi Engine. From the indicators we’re seeing already, mainly from other organizations looking for similar tools, there will be a lot of disruption in different parts of the world.

    When people think of crisis reporting, crisis response, or early warning, they tend to think of organization (government, non-governmental and corporate). What is usually left out of this equation is a fourth pillar – the people themselves. Directly interfacing with everyday citizens appears like it could be very useful – maybe even game changing. Hopefully we, and the community around Ushahidi, will create the right solutions to tap that source.

  2. kifimbocheza says:

    Let me give you a very tangential reference – not directly relevant to your paper, but you’ll be interested more generally. Last night read a fascinating review of “Information and Communication in Venice: Rethinking Early Modern Politics”, by Filippo de Vivo. Looks at information, opinion, their formation and transmission. How did the state control information? How did others get around it. Interesting perspectives on the shifting borders between rumour, fact, opinion and propaganda. Review is in the London Review of Books, 5 June edition. The avissi seem like early bloggers…..

  3. Malik says:

    This is incredible. It is pleasant when you find people who are like minded. I am writing a book on my experiences on PEV in Kenya. I was at one point the only person driving along Nakuru – Naivasha – Nairobi… when the whole country was fearful and afraid because of the mayhem that engulfed the place. I was helping to a cog in the wheel restoring law and order. I am glad all that is a bygone and we could even afford a new constitution today.

  4. Malik says:

    I was helping in restoration of law and order … excuse my typo….

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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