The erosion of digital rights in the fight against COVID-19 in Kenya

By Victor Kapiyo for CIPESA 29 September 2020

Kenya confirmed its first coronavirus (Covid-19) case on March 12, 2020, and as of August 26, 2020, the country had recorded at least 559 deaths, 32,803 confirmed cases, and 19,055 recoveries, with 429,513 persons tested.

Even before the first case was confirmed in Kenya in February 2020, the government had moved to establish the National Emergency Response Committee on Covid-19 to coordinate its preparedness, prevention and response to Covid-19.

The government subsequently introduced several measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 including suspension of public gatherings and other social distancing requirements; limitation on travel outside the country; imposition of a dusk-to-dawn curfew under the Public Order Act, 2003; travel bans in and out of the capital, Nairobi, and three other high-risk counties of Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale.

The Ministry of Health has been providing regular updates on the pandemic both online and offline through its various platforms. It has provided routine updates including situation reports; Covid-19 protocols and guidelines; various public awareness messages; and daily press updates on the status of the pandemic. The government also required all broadcasters to air the health ministry’s Public Service Announcements (PSA) at no cost. As at May 10, more than 43,000 Public Service Announcements had been aired.

However, concerns remained over the negative impact of these measures on peoples’ enjoyment of their fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, access to information, privacy and data protection, and freedom of assembly. Meanwhile, a rise in misinformation with respect to Covid-19, has been met with responses from the government that have threatened human rights.

While there have not been reports of government efforts to block or filter content or to shut down websites to fight the spread of Covid-19 misinformation, it has used other means, including legal threats and arrests. In a public statement, the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, issued a warning, stating that “these rumours must stop … but because I know empty appeals will not work, we will proceed and arrest a number of them to prove our point.” Consequently, the government has abused the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act, 2018 to intimidate, arrest, and detain persons, including whistleblowers and critics, in order to censor what it has deemed false information in relation to Covid-19.

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