China’s TikTok faces ban in Kenya after live protest coverage

The government of Kenya supposedly through a proxy is planning to block the access of a popular platform TikTok in the Country. 

A petitioner, Bob Ndolo, presented the motion to Parliament arguing that the content being shared on video sharing app TikTok is inappropriate. He is contending that it is promoting violence, explicit sexual content, hate speech, vulgar language, and offensive behavior, and continues to state that it is a serious threat to the cultural and religious values in Kenya. 

The state has not just woken to the popular video streaming application that launched over five years ago. Rather it has become more aware of the powerful medium with a third of Kenya’s young generation using TikTok as their primary source for news and information.

Live coverage platform

The online platform has become even more popular over its live coverage platform that took over airwaves following a state sanctions on media houses to cease live coverage of the opposition led cost of living riots. 

The live broadcast on the app captured cases of police brutality during the weekly demonstrations staged by the leader of the opposition calling on the government to lower the cost of living. The videos clips were circulated from one user to the other in real time.

Hence many see the reason of the ban is to hide evidence of police maiming and killing innocent protesters as authorities have started to follow the playbook of other authoritarian regimes in Africa. 

But Mr Ndolo has gone for American explanation for cracking down on TikTok raising concerns that could apply to almost all social media platforms. He argued that the app’s data practices, and ownership structure has the potential of compromising the privacy and security of most Kenyans use it. 

The reality is that such allegations of data use and misuse are reasonable for countries pushing rival social media platforms like the West. Other countries, which have banned TikTok have done so in challenge to China like in India where the Chinese-made apps were banned in mid-2020 as a danger to the nation’s sovereignty. The move came amid growing tensions between the two nations. 

Read also: Kenya’s Justice System has Criminalized Poverty

Monitor and sanitize content

The app was also banned in Indonesia, home of the world’s biggest Muslim population, over claims of featuring content deemed blasphemous. The ban was overturned a week later after the company promised to send a team of officials to monitor and sanitize the content created and shared in the country. 

Fact is most social media sites, just like TikTok are not immune to controversy and persistent attacks. Governments fear the ability of social media in organizing dissenting voices especially given the outsized impact that social media had in the Arab Spring uprisings. 

In Kenya, Reuters Institute Digital News report 2023 survey shows that the East African nation leads in world TikTok usage. The survey observed that a staggering 54 percent of users engaged in TikTok for specific purpose including but not limited to entertainment contrast to hate speech, violence, vulgar language, and offensive behavior as claimed by the petitioner. 

The survey further noted that 29 percent of users specifically rely on it for news consumption. The report highlights TikTok’s growing significance as a news distribution channel especially to the younger demographics or ‘Gen Z’. It indicates a shift away from traditional platforms like Facebook, which has long held the top position but is now experiencing decline in popularity. 

Furthermore, the report reveals that users of TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat demonstrate a stronger inclination towards following celebrities and social media influencers for news topics, rather than relying on established media organizations. This phenomenon suggests that audiences selectively avoid emotionally challenging or distressing stories to safeguard their mental well-being. 

TikTok as an instrument of expression

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that allows individuals to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions freely without any form of censorship. This is well espoused in the international declaration of Human rights and in the Constitution of Kenya, Article 33 which states that individuals are free to seek, receive or impart information or ideas and freedom of artistic creativity. 

Instead of outright ban on the app, the government through the Communications Authority of Kenya should consider implementing stricter regulations or even engage in negotiations with TikTok’s parent company to address their concerns while still allowing the platform to operate. 

TikTok is a powerful tool for communication and creative expression, especially among younger generations. The youths in the country have been using TikTok applications to seek and receive information from their favorite celebrities and social media influencers about their lifestyles. 

The app has been a source of income for many such as Azziad Nasenya, a Tiktoker, who grew through content creation and sharing short videos on the platform in 2020. Therefore, banning the platform could potentially limit the ability of young people to earn, connect, share, and engage with others. 

TikTok as advertising platform

Brand companies and businesses have TikTok accounts and use it as a source of advertising their services and products respectively. In this technological era, the app gives the platform of lifting businesses to flourish in sales and profits. However, the users have the option of following the accounts that they may deem fit for viewing its contents from time to time. 

The question of whether a TikTok ban is a threat on freedom of expression depends on how the ban will be implemented, the reasons behind it and whether it strikes an appropriate balance between protecting the users and upholding their right to free expression. 

Therefore, the Public Petitions Committee, guided by the spirit of the constitution, should find and/or consider TikTok as an equal social media application with other apps like WhatsApp, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram used for seeking, receiving, and imparting information.

Kithinji Nturibi is a Law Student at Mount Kenya University [email protected] and Okoth Ochieng is a Communications practitioner [email protected]

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