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Kenyan Blogosphere: Debate over social responsibility, freedom of speech, and censorship

A heated debate has been raging in the Kenyan blogosphere over the removal of one blog, My Part of the World, from the Kenyan Blog Webring (KBW) aggregator. The aggregator is part of the vibrant community of Kenyan bloggers at home and abroad. The debate has centered around issues of decency, freedom of speech, censorship, social responsibility and has been marked, at times, by personal attacks both subtle and direct.

Thinker’s Room, who noted that the debate was “generating more heat than light,” tried to summarize the events leading to the removal and the subsequent hot debate involving bloggers and readers:

From what I can gather, the facts are as follows:
• Acolyte put up a post on his blog
• Some people objected to the content of the blog
• Acolyte received a mail informing him that he had been taken off the KBW aggregator due to his post
• The KBW admin team put up a post clarifying grounds from expulsion from the aggregator
• Acolyte denies that this was the reason for which he was expelled
• One of the Admin put up a post further clarifying that Acolyte had not in fact been removed from KBW – he had only been removed from the aggregator


At first, there was some confusion. KBW says that Acolyte misread their email and was confused as to whether his blog had been removed from the aggregator or his membership completely revoked. Daudi, the founder of KBW and a leading figure in the Kenyan blogosphere, writes in his blog, Mental Acrobatics:

I assume we all understand now that Acolyte was not removed from the webring. I also assume that no one holds the KBW Admin Team responsible for him misreading or misinterpreting that email to mean that he has been removed from KBW. You can blame us for many things but we can not and will not be held responsible for someone not bothering to read an email properly.

The email sent to Acolyte by KBW Admin team, and to which Thinker’s Room refers, reads:

While we accept that you can write what you want on your blog, we do not have to accept insults, destructiveness and negativity on KenyaUnlimited and thus have it reflected on to KBW. As you appear to be keen to encourage discord with your posts contrary to the aims of KBW, we are removing your blog from the KBW aggregator forthwith.

This email was not the first one from the administration of team of KBW to Acolyte, the blogger behind My Part of the World. The team had previously written him regarding comments he had been making about the Kenyan Blog Webring:

We write this email in regard to various comments you have made regarding the administration team of the Kenyan Blogs Webring. The latest examples being the post on your blog at this link: http://mywordsonly.blogspot.com/2006/06/answers-part-i.html and another example being the comments you have made on nmjoe.blogspot.com.

One of the comments the email is referring to reads:

No need to be civil here it seems. First of all I see me disguising myself as a wise move as I get to comment (besides when to std 3 kids disguise themselves and why?).Yes to some extent I do not need KBW and yes I was this close to leaving but a blogger whom I respect talked me out of it and their explanation made a lot of sense. KBW is not the inner clique whom I may have disagreed with but every other blogger who is a member. Plus the fact that I may disagree with some of the KBW stalwarts does not [mean] I disagree with KBW's aims which are pretty noble.

Writing a post about why his other blog, Instigated By…, will not go mainstream Acolyte remarked:

Secondly KBW is in many ways turning out to be the polar opposite of Kenyan forums like Mashada and Kenyaniyetu. Whereas people in Mashada et al are tearing each other into shredds for any reason whatsoever, bloggers in KBW bend over to please and approve of each other. Disagreement is rare on blogs in KBW even when contentious issues are brought up. Someone told me that this is because dissenting voices rarely speak and those who support do so to keep the blogger in question coming to their blog. I on the other hand do not hesitate to voice my opinion instead of clapping like a seal awaiting a fish from the ring master in the circus. Conflict and criticism can be constructive; that is something that people need to learn in KBW and indulge in it more. Finally some of the opinions here do not go with the progressive liberal flow and are bound to ruffle feathers

After the removal of his blog from the KBW aggregator early this month, Acolyte posted a three-part fictional interview series, Membership Revoked: The exclusive interview, in which CNN’s Jeff Koinange interviews him about the situation.

The interview begins:

Latest reports are that as of October 5th Acolyte was no longer a member of the Kenyaunlimited Web Ring. CNN decided to send their top ranking reporter on African issues, Jeff Koinange to interview Acolyte and find out what led to this state of affairs.
PS: The interview may be fake but the sentiments, comments and information in it are very very real!

Responding to a question from “Jeff Koinange” Acolyte explains:

I guess my posts just didn't encourage the spirit of peace, love and unity…I am no longer part of Kenyan Bloggers’ Webring ( KBW ). It was decided that I was causing too much conflict and disharmony with my posts.

One of the posts he is referring to was written in February, 2006. It was about his comment on a post written by another Kenyan blogger, Mshairi. Mshairi, a UK based blogger, wrote a post asking bloggers to stop insulting women. She wrote:

I have recently been greatly disturbed by two instances where two male bloggers discussed and described women in misogynistic terms. In the first instance, a blogger described a situation in which a female boss, according to him, was being unreasonable. The derogatory language used to describe the woman left me reeling and had me reaching for the sick bag. The descriptions included ‘ignoramus’, ‘spiteful, angry menopausal bitch’, and ‘ruthless menopausal maniac’. All that remained was the blogger to call the woman a prostitute. Wait, he did.

In the second instance, another blogger wrote, “lesbos probably need a dick whipping”. I agree wholeheartedly with a comment left by someone on this post: “Dick-whipping is such a violent way of speaking. It ultimately translates itself into rape.” Later on, the blogger backtracked and said what he meant was that “lesbians would most likely have a change of heart on their sexual orientation if they had mind blowing sex with a guy.” How very vain, egotistical and self-serving. This is an offensive statement in its own right and an insult as the meaning is that women do not have the sense to know their sexual preferences.

Reacting to Mshairi’s post Acolyte (writing as Instigator) offered his opinion on the subject:

Why don’t you start your own blogosphere then where all the posts can meet your standards? The fact is that there is freedom of expression on the net and as a result people will say what they feel, it doesnt make it right but it will happen.

He then wrote a post in his blog, True Instigation:

A certain blogger took exception to this comment that I made in response to her post that insulting of women by bloggers must stop. Please not that these insults were 2 posts out of the hundreds that go up from the 120 plus KBW blogs!Yes women are under a deluge of insults!This is what I said!

Another post, which he later deleted from his blog, was a reaction to media reports about the meeting between the Tanzania's President, Jakaya Kikwete and the US President, George Bush where they reportedly discussed “political instability” in Kenya. He called the Tanzanian President a “dumb bitch” for discussing Kenyan issues while he is the President of Tanzania and invited Tanzanians (provided that their English and computer skills allow them to do so!) to defend their President.

According to Acolyte, it was this particular post that “broke the camel’s back”:

Jeff Koinange: So what was the straw that broke the camel's back?
Acolyte: It was a strongly worded post I wrote about the Tanzanian President committing a diplomatic gaffe by discussing Kenya's political situation with President Bush.
Jeff Koinange: So what went wrong?
Acolyte: A Tanzanian member of KBW who also does bilingual online projects and enjoys a close relationship with the one of the KBW admin members blogged about it and that's when the shit hit the fan.
Jeff Koinange: So exactly what happened.
Acolyte: Well he wrote a long convoluted post about it and singled me out for criticism and complaint and said that he would continue to blog about the issue.
Jeff Koinange: What did you do in return?
Acolyte: I wrote a post where I reffered to the issue and admitted that my use of such strong language to refer to a leader was in bad taste but that I stood by sentiments but not the words and by now I had taken down the post. I also said that if anyone had a problem with the post they should have emailed me, we would have discussed the issue amicably.

The Tanzanian blog he is referring to is Jikomboe, a Swahili blog. Jikomboe condemned the use of foul language to refer to the President of Tanzania and pointed out that since Tanzania is the African representative to the UN Security Council and a member of the UN Peace Building Commission, there seems to be a justification for the two leaders discussing issues of peace and security outside their respective countries.

After Acolyte’s first interview, another Kenyan blogger, Uncle Joe's, in a post reminiscent of tabloid drama, promised to reveal inside information about KBW. However, he later changed his mind and removed the post saying:

I say let everyone carry his or her own cross. We all blog as individuals and should carry the responsibilities for what we do and what we say. I have always said that for me blogging was serious business and I intend to continue on that path. I intend to lead by example and character.

The administration team of Kenyan Blog Webring weighed in with a post titled: KBW Membership Clarification:

The Admin Team of the Kenyan Blogs Webring has been working with and for Kenyan bloggers for over two years. In this time we have never kicked a single blogger out of the webring because of what they write on their blog or because of the opinions they express on their blog. The only reason bloggers have been removed from KBW by the Admin Team, thus far, is for not having KBW ringcode visible on their blogs as this is a condition of membership. Even this action is only taken after numerous warnings have been ignored or dismissed. We ask that you remain vigilant to any lies and disinformation that may suggest any action by the Admin Team to the contrary. We challenge anybody with information to the contrary to provide proof. Then together we can all use that skill beloved of bloggers, verification.

Daudi, of Mental Acrobatics, offered his thoughts on the issue:

Secondly why is it that any little negative rumour, innuendo, allegation about the actions of the Admin Team is treated as gospel by a small minority of our members? Why are you so quick to believe any lie propagated about us? Where is the pause for reflection? As a large part of blogging is about verification, checking that the information you share is correct, I find this lack of verification interesting and frustrating. It seems some people would believe anything that is written about the Admin Team regardless of how ridiculous or ludicrous it is.

Acolyte posted the second part of the fictional interview with CNN:

Jeff Koinange: So what do you make of the latest post on the Admin blog?
Acolyte: To be honest I think people are not reading from the same script at all. It is time that matters were clarified. My expulsion had nothing to do with the code on my blog! And it couldn't be because I removed the code after I received the email telling me that my blog had been taken off the aggregator and was no longer on the list of KBW member blogs. So the code isn't an issue at all and shouldn't be talked about! Let it be known this isn't an attack on the Mental and the rest of the Administrators! It is about transparency, accountability, misuse of powers, censorship and other issues I am going to touch on. I am not out to destroy KBW but I think there are some important issues here we have to deal with! This is also an open acceptance to Mental's offer to dialogue.

Noting that his relationship with KBW has not always being rocky, he wrote:

Jeff Koinange: So have things always been this way between you and the KBW Administration?
Acolyte: No! One of them was who sees me as a tool of destruction was among the first people to comment on my blog and the founder too has commented on my blog before.
Jeff Koinange: So when did things begin to sour?
Acolyte: Well as a person I have always enjoyed debate and intellectual conversation, so what I did was set up a blog persona (Instigator) who would go around and ask hard biting questions about issues so as to instigate discussion, I also began to use the corresponding blog for social satire on many issues but focusing on gender issues in the Western world.
Jeff Koinange: Was this identity a secret?
Acolyte: No it wasn't, I told several bloggers about it and even had the persona guest blog on my own blog for a while. Other bloggers have even openly linked me with that persona.Another example here. So this was an open secret!
Jeff Koinange: So you did not use the persona to make personal attacks.
Acolyte: Oh no not at all! I set it up for fun. Besides which people knew who I was so it wouldnt make sense at all!

In the meantime, Thinker’s Room asserted that removal of My Part of the World from the aggregator was a form of censorship, which bloggers should unite against. He wrote:

It is news to me that being a KBW member does not qualify one to be on the aggregator. I am sure I am not the only one who thinks that it is implied, especially if there is nothing saying the contrary, and especially more upon reading the excerpt above.
The question is:
1. What are these criteria
2. Where are these criteria
3. Why are they not in the open, in the interests of transparency
I have no problem in maintaining control of the aggregator, or even KBW itself provided that the rules are set, the rules are clear, and the rules are in the open.
Until then it is going to be very difficult to justify Acolyte’s expulsion from the aggregator, and why this does not amount to censorship. Bloggers unite as one to defend freedom of expression in the media.

Thinker’s Room sees the difference between what he calls “KBW infrastructure” and the blogging community:

We must begin to differentiate the infrastructure from the community. KBW is not the infrastructure it is the people.

Mental Acrobatics wrote another piece titled “Engaging in the Issues” maintaning that while debating about “right,” bloggers should take into consideration issues of responsibility as well.

Here is the other side of the coin. While many of you express shock that there is no right to appear on the aggregator how many of you have raised the issue of the responsibility that goes with the right? If there is a right to the aggregator there must be by extension a responsibility to the aggregator. I would like to hear you thoughts on what those responsibilities may be.

Mental Acrobatics argued that the removal from the aggregator did not infringe on the right to free speech nor amounted to censorship:

Another argument doing the rounds is that by removing a blog from the aggregator the Admin Team has infringed on the right to free speech of that blogger, some even say censorship. Again i call nonsense. You are free to write whatever you want on your blog. Your speech can be as free as you want on your blog, how does removing you from the aggregtor infringe on that freedom of speech? How has the Admin Team stopped a blogger from exercising that right to free speech? Or are you saying that removal from the aggregator is equivalent to forceably shutting a blog down? If the Admin Team decided to take the aggregator down completely would all KBW members have had their right to free speech violated?

He observed that balancing individual freedom of speech and community moral sensibilities involves many challenges, and responded to questions about KBW code of conduct:

Consider a new Kenyan blogger joins the webring, after about a month all they post on their blog is message saying “fuck KBW” and nothing else. Repeatedly over and over again. Would you leave them on the webring? What if a blog written by a Kenyan which was full of pictures glorifying rape (and believe me these blogs do exist) applied to join the webring? We concluded that such blogs would have no place in our community. Basically it is all about common sense. Everything does not go. There has been no code of conduct because we deal with each issue on a case by case basis.

Another blogger, White African, commenting on Mental Acrobatics’s blog, offers a suggestion regarding KBW policy-making mechanism. He thinks KBW should adopt a user-based moderation, something similar to Digg, to empower the member base.

KBW is the best “community” of bloggers in Africa, this is due in no small part to the efforts of the admin team, AfroM and the ability of Kenyan bloggers to partake in debates with a certain level of maturity. In short, you rarely see the flame wars here that you do in other parts of the blogosphere – people generally do seem to care. My only comment on this drama is to remember that KBW is a platform propped up by its membership. Platforms are at their best when they are agnostic and operate free of subjective thought towards the member base. Here’s a thought, that might or might not be worth considering in the future. Empower the member base to decide the outcome of important decisions, make it a true community where the members have influence (see Digg as an example of user-based moderation).

In his final part of the interview, Acolyte promises not to write about the issue anymore:

Jeff Koinange: So is this the last we are hearing about the issue?
Acolyte: Indeed yes. I think that if I post anymore the focus on the issues at hand will be lost. I hope that bloggers learn from this experience to learn to ask questions when they need to be asked. Other members are more than welcome to blog about the issues at hand. For me life must go on.

He then set some ground rules on his blog:

Today marks a return to regular programming in Aco Land. No more crusades, blogwars and beef. Life back to normal! The last few weeks had been so hectic that I actually contemplated taking a long hiatus from blogging because it had become no fun at all! But I was threatened by physical violence so I will take my hiatus later but for some time I won't be blogging daily, pole sana. Now since I am no longer an active member of a blogging community I have to set down some ground rules on my blog.

1. This is my blog and I am god here – Now that there is no longer a body that I am responsible to and whose reputation I have to uphold, I can pretty much do whatever I want with this space. If you can't deal with it; please move on.

Since its inception in July 2004, KBW has been an inspiring example of a successful African blogging community with its webring and an aggregator. Earlier this year the community held its first Blog Awards, Kaybees Awards 2006.

Now, what is the future of KBW? Daudi, its founder, writes on his blog:

These past few days may give the impression that we as a webring are going through some kind of crisis. That we are on the brink of collaspe. WE ARE NOT. We are stronger than ever, growing as fast as ever, the number of people reading the aggregator continues to grow, the number of people reading all our blogs continues to grow, together we continue to be recognised as a powerful force online. We are doing well we are going places. Let no one tell you otherwise.

2 comments

  • […] Majuzi kulikuwa na mjadala mkali kwenye blogu za majirani zetu wa Kenya. Mjadala huu ambao umegusa masuala mbalimbali kuhusu wajibu wa kijamii na uhuru wa kujieleza, ulitokana na kuondolewa kwa blogu moja toka kwenye kikusanya habari cha jumuiya ya wanablogu wa Kenya. Nimeandika muhtasari wa mjadala huo ambao unazua masuala mbalimbali ambayo ni muhimu sana kujadiliwa na wanablogu na kuwekwa wazi, hasa suala la uhuru wa kujieleza ambalo naona umuhimu wa kuliandika hapo baadaye. Nadhani maneno “uhuru wa kujieleza” au “uhuru wa maoni” yanaweza kutumiwa kama vile ni ufunguo wa kumpa mtu haki kusema lolote lile bila kujali wajibu, hisia za watu, utamaduni, n.k.  Bonyeza hapa usome muhtasari huo (kwa lugha yao) ulioko kwenye tovuti ya Global Voices Online.   […]

  • jmp

    check this out also: http://africareadingcapaign.blogspot.com

    Like you I live in the US now, from Uganda!

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