In today’s world, bloggers, artists, designers, techies,
hacktivists, writers, musicians, and citizen journalists all use
modern tools of digital technology to speak truth to power.
digital savvy group can be referred to as artists because they
use their creative skills to generate content.
Increased mobile phone penetration and internet connectivity has
boosted their ability to reach new markets. They use their art to
push boundaries and make bold statements on diverse issues. As
such, art has provided a means for the population, especially the
younger generation, to express itself.
Through their creativity they challenge dominant views and
These views go beyond governments to include
religious and socio-cultural norms that are driven by powerful
gatekeepers like cultural influencers and popular celebrities.
This use of artistic expression drives conversations and includes
topics—like homosexuality—that were once muted in public
discourse because they were considered taboo.
Art, therefore, has become a reference point that generates
critical debate around human identity, modernity, and politics.
But the amplifying impact of the internet has meant that freedom
of speech is coming under increased attack in East Africa,
specifically in Kenya , Tanzania and Uganda . These East African
states are attempting to muzzle the voices of everyone in the
expressive space. This is a means to stifle dissent.
Action taken against East African artists has been precipitated by
the fact that they have moved beyond the everyday role of
educating and entertaining to speaking out against political
oppression and advocating for change.
Some of their common areas of focus include governance, peace
building, gender fluidity, emerging societal trends, environment
and climate change, sexual reproductive rights, and gender
based violence. In Kenya for instance, musicians are often at the
forefront of the movement for social justice. Singer and
songwriter Eric Wainaina is one of many.
There have been concerted state efforts to control the vibrant
East African creative industry. This has been done through
arbitrary arrests, harassment, intimidation, and even murder.
In Tanzania popular musician Nay wa Mitego was arrested for
releasing a song titled Wapo which was deemed to be critical of
His fellow musician Roma Mkatoliki was kidnapped by people
suspected to be government agents. While he was abducted at a
recording studio it’s still unclear why he was taken. Roma later
released Zimbabwe, a song about his ordeal and the risks of
speaking truth to power. He was then banned from performing for
These events have led to popular Tanzanian musicians like
Diamond Platinumz speaking out against political oppression. In
his song Acha Nikae Kimya, which means ‘let me remain silent’, he
speaks about the state of political affairs in Tanzania. Recently,
Diamond was arrested on charges of indecent exposure.
In Uganda, activist Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera who is fondly
identified as the founding mother of Uganda’s LGBTQI rights
movement, was arrested for advocating for LGBTQI rights in a
country where being gay is illegal.
In Kenya, photographer Msingi Sasis Bekko was arrested and
accused of being a terrorist. Msingi was arrested in April 2015 at
Galleria Shopping Mall in Nairobi. He was grabbed while taking
pictures and accused of terrorism .
A number of other barriers also affect freedom of expression. One
of them is cultural values. Critical work by artists is not always
well received because part of the audience is deeply conservative
– politically, culturally and spiritually.
The field of creative arts is poorly regulated. This has allowed
East African governments to deal harshly with what they perceive
as disruptive output. Creatives are susceptible to state
suppression through draconian legislation because they are not
enough laws to protect their rights.
In Kenya for example, the Kenya Film Classification Board has
been seen to overstep its mandate which is to regulate the
creation, broadcasting, possession and distribution of film and
broadcasting content. Most recently it banned a Kenyan film
because of its lesbian content.
Finally, some creatives confess that they have to grapple with
self-censorship, both at an individual level and within their
employment contexts. One example is newsroom cartoonists who
must constantly question if they have gone too far with their
criticisms of the East African leadership. For instance, Gado , a
Tanzanian cartoonist who lives and works in Kenya, was fired
from the country’s leading daily newspaper in 2016 for criticising
These realities call for a robust conversation on the freedoms of
speech and expression. This must recognise the intricate
relationship between traditional and nontraditional sources of
information in a world where citizen journalism has become more
prominent than ever before, and press freedom applies to anyone
who creates content.
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