Kenyan activist disappears ahead of protests while a new cyber crimes law is challenged in court

Peaceful Assembly

On 29th May 2018, activist and protest organiser Mildred Atty Owiso went missing two days before a nationwide anti-corruption protest scheduled for 31st May. Colleagues sounded the alarm on social media by posting images of a WhatsApp distress message, which she had sent to her lawyer during her arrest. In her message, Mildred indicated that she had been picked up by unknown men, who she presumed were police officers in plain clothes. It later emerged that she had been abducted, driven to an undisclosed location, and questioned. Five hours later, she was released and warned by the abductors to stay off social media and stop organising protests.

On the same day, before her release, the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders-Kenya (NCHRD-K), issued a press release on her disappearance, which also raised concerns on cases of intimidation of human rights defenders in the country. NCHRD-K, a National organisation, which works to strengthen the capacity of Human rights Defenders in Kenya commented on the situation by saying:

“Mildred is one of the key organisers of the countrywide peaceful protests against spiralling grand corruption planned for 31st May 2018. In the last few days, several organisers of the protests have reported threats to their lives through phone calls and surveillance”

The demonstration was part of a series of protests organised by an all-female group to raise awareness of a massive corruption scandal within the National Youth Service and National Cereals and Produce Board. In the last few years, the National Youth Service, has come under increasing public scrutiny after major corruption scandals implicating powerful government officials, involving billions of shillings were exposed by the media causing widespread public outrage. 

Freedom of expression

In a separate development, a new Cybercrime Bill in Kenya is being contested by Civil Society Organisations who claim that it contains vague provisions that are unconstitutional and unduly gag media professionals. On 29th May 2018, The High Court in Nairobi temporarily suspended 26 sections of the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Bill, which was signed into law by the President on 16th May 2018, after an appeal by the Bloggers Association of Kenya, among others. While the objective of the law was to address issues including cybercrime, cyber bullying, phishing, false news and cybersquatting, the plaintiffs contend that it contains provisions which deny, infringe upon, and threaten the freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of the media, freedom, and security of the person, right to privacy, right to property and the right to a fair hearing.

In particular, they argue that the Bill re-introduces, among other things, provisions of the Kenya Information and Communications Act (KICA) which had previously been condemned by the High Court for being unconstitutional. On 19th April 2016, the High Court declared section 29 of the KICA as unconstitutional for criminalising libel through telecommunication systems, in a broad and vague manner which limited rights in the constitution. Between January and March 2016, the Act had been used to arrest and charge 15 individuals in Kenya. On 3rd July 2018, the suspension of the 26 provisions was extended to October when the Court will hear an application by the Attorney General that seeks to have the suspension lifted on the basis that it was erroneously issued.

In June 2018, Human Rights Watch accused Kenyan officials of routinely harassing and threatening human rights defenders who have been advocating for accountability after the unrest that engulfed the 2017 general elections. Most of the incidents reported by human rights defenders include threats of arrest, warnings not to post information about police brutality, home and office raids, and confiscation of laptops and other items. There have reportedly been up to 15 activists who have endured these intimidation tactics.

Mr. Otsieno Namwaya, Africa Researcher at Human Rights Watch raised the following concern:

“Kenyan authorities seem to be deliberately silencing activists who want justice for killings and other abuses by the police during the 2017 election…the government should call a halt to these tactics, investigate all alleged abuses from that period and ensure all activists are free to speak out and victims feel safe to seek justice.”