Shrinking Spaces for Protest.

On 07.07.2020 Kenyans took to the streets and exercised their democratic right to protest. The right to peacefully protest is enshrined in article 37 of the Kenyan Constitution. Which outlines that Kenyan authorities should allow peaceful demonstrators to proceed without fear of attack, and respect and support their rights to assembly and expression. The protest successfully went ahead despite state violence that was meted against protestors by intimidation, tear gassing, brutalizing and arresting us, but we were determined and remained unbowed. Saba Saba this year marked it’s 30th anniversary. The struggle for fighting against the brutalizing, dehumanization and disregard for Kenyan lives and the constitution continues. In the past couple of years under the current regime, it has been evident that the country is steadily reverting back to authoritarian ways, with criminalization of poverty being at an all-time high while the real perpetrators of violence and graft in the country remain securely perched in positions of power and leadership in the country.

Acts of Protest.

Protest exists and is exhibited in many forms. As we may very well know, in Kenya there is still an insurmountable amount of stigma towards ‘street protest’. I remember very well, bystanders during the Saba Saba March being exceedingly hostile towards protestors, this was coupled with the police force tear gassing and brutalising us. Protest can also be exhibited online as was the case with the #SabaSabaMarchForOurLives and #StopPoliceBrutalityKE hashtags on Twitter. Both online and offline forms of protest are valuable and work hand in hand.

The Internet, Protest and Freedom of Expression.

Kenya, a country still subject to occasions of power blackouts, with some locations devoid of the requisite infrastructure to power communities with electricity, is still struggling to consistently and effectively connect to the internet. Social media platforms and messaging applications such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram prove essential for community organizing. The world over, #BlackLivesMatter protests happened every other day speaking up against police brutality. Social media and messaging platforms were awash with phone data and physical safety advisories useful while protesting, meeting the urgent need of citizens looking to be informed on how to protect themselves against state machinery that doesn’t value human life. Several virtual meetings were also held to raise awareness and mobilise against state injustices, especially as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has hampered physical meetups for large groups. 

On the day of the protest Boniface Mwangi, a Kenyan photojournalist, politician and activist involved in social-political activism, was via Twitter, reported to be arrested while sitting at a café, while merely awaiting the release of fellow comrades who had been arrested by the police. If it wasn’t for mobile phones and the internet, we need to ask ourselves how would Kenyans be made aware of the injustices in the country? If you follow Boniface on his social media, you will see that he uses his platform to share occurrences sent to him via his private messages, sometimes using the hashtag #SemaUkweli. These stories narrate injustices faced by Kenyans who have no way of getting their story effectively heard. This has now become the last recourse for Kenyans who have been denied justice. Afterall, justice delayed is justice denied.

The internet has suddenly become even more of an essential service than it ever was in the past. We need to realise that it is a vital component for freedom of expression, for all citizens regardless of their location and it must be protected at all costs. However, our comrades and neighbours in Ethiopia, have not been so fortunate with the recent internet shutdown. This occurred in the wake of protests against the killing of prominent Oromo musician and social activist, Haacaaluu Hundeessaa. In response, the government in order to thwart dissension in the nation, implemented a country-wide internet shutdown

As community organisers rely even more on mobile phones and the internet for sending vital information before, during and after protests, the state is also keenly aware of this. During the #SabaSabaMarchForOurLives in Kenya, one of the protestors mentioned the police confiscating their phone thereby effectively preventing them from connecting with the outside world. Fortunately, a fellow comrade who was present at the time, was able to report this and raise awareness to other protestors who were on the streets to remain vigilant. It is not only using tear gas and batons that the state muzzles and limits freedom of expression, but also when they limit our means to communicate. State machinery understands the power of the internet, and is rapidly evolving and adapting. 

State Surveillance

As we expose more of these stories, state surveillance also  seems to be a growing concern. In an article outlining how poor urban youth are criminalized by systemic violence, Minoo Kyaa and Maryanne Kasina pen how police vigilantes profile youth in slums through social media and murder them. Are we concerned yet, because it is becoming increasingly evident that offline and now online spaces are now both precarious, for exhibiting our vital acts of protest. 

Some protest resources:

Safety During Protest

Protecting your data during a protest

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