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On Kenya’s New Polygamy Bill

Broken Heart

Oh look, while I was busy plotting to take over the world¬†another corner of the internet, Kenyan politicians have come up with another one of their gems that force me to come out of my self-imposed purdah. This time, it’s a doozy: polygamy without consultation!

First, I note that polyandry seems to be missing from the bill. If women are equal citizens, why are women not allowed to have multiple husbands? That smacks of a double standard. If men are allowed a harem, women ought to be allowed a troupe of taut, oiled dancing boys – or something similar – to amuse them when hubby is too tired from work or dealing with his other wives. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, after all.

And while I haven’t read the bill in detail, it appears to make a distinction between civil marriage and customary (read: tribal) marriage. That is a problem. Say a man has taken on a number of wives, but only one of them is registered as “legit”. Are household assets and income split equally or is one favoured over the others? When the wives are in dispute over the treatment of themselves or their children, to whom do they have recourse?

What I can predict with a degree of certainty is that this legislation will lead to the death of romance and the rise of cold calculation where marriage is concerned. A thinking woman, when considering a “come we stay” or marriage proposal, will demand the following as a show of good faith:

  • A formal written proposal outlining the arrangement she is entering into
  • A guarantee as to her status in the relationship going forward
  • Assurances as to the status and support of any progeny arising from the relationship
  • Provisos for restitution should the relationship sour

Congratulations, Kenyan lawyers! I do believe that our legislators have just made pre-nups, post-nups and new-wife-appearing-nups a thing! All it needs is the right test case and the floodgates will open for an entirely new cohort of people seeking legal advice about their relationships. Think of the fees! And when the relationships break down? Just think of all the billable hours that could be charged! Without any pre-existing arrangements, divorce cases are about to get awfully complicated. And just imagine what happens when the father of such a brood dies without leaving a comprehensive will. It is going to be a bonanza out there. Start advertising now!

If Kenyan legislators had thought about this in any depth before voting for the bill, they would have laughed it out of the chamber, because unintended consequences can be serious and detrimental to everyone. But they didn’t, because the majority are men, and so are convinced that having more than one wife is what their Sky Daddy wants for them (your flavour of Sky Daddy may vary; mine is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, preferably with carbonara sauce). So while some Kenya men celebrate the idea of unlimited spouses, women quietly see the deckchairs being moved on the Titanic, and wonder whether marriage is worth the bother at all. Those with money plot silently to fly to foreign sperm banks with sane legislation should they wish to have children. Good Kenyan men of quality have effectively seen their lawmakers make them redundant.

Kenyans: a nation of lions led by donkeys. Only this time, some of the lions are happy to follow.

(Image by Free Grunge Textures)

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#SOPAStrike and the Great Internet Blackout

Save the Internet, by Steve RhodesHow are you doing today, with some of the world’s most popular websites shutting down in protest at proposed US regulations?

I’m doing OK, I guess. Mainly because I had a lie-in and then spent a couple of hours doing lots of offline work that didn’t need any internet access at all. I’m not taking part, beyond having this blog hosted on WordPress.com (who are), and agreeing with the strikers.

Let’s get one thing straight: SOPA and PIPA, the legislative acts that are being proposed, are not only muddled, wrong-headed and overly punitive, but they could have the perverse effect of making the internet more dangerous for ordinary users by potentially breaking the DNS system. And that should terrify everyone, not just US citizens.

ICANN, the body that basically manages the internet, is based in the United States. It has to adhere to US law. Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, many other of those websites striking today are in the same position. Just because they have a global reach doesn’t mean that their size will protect them from what’s going on on their home turf. This is despite the fact that the US by no means makes up the majority of global internet users, despite the power of Silicon Valley.

Should the rest of us be worried? Obviously. If the websites that we have come to rely on (no matter how incidentally) become vulnerable to malicious and vindictive regulation, it affects not only their US users, but their global audience. So what is to be done? Well, aside from encouraging everyone to move to Iceland, which is planning to position itself as a bastion of internet freedom, we can fight for internet freedom on our own turf. We have to agitate against action we see being taken that might undermine internet freedom elsewhere.

Above all, we must support those who are willing to take a stand, whether or not it causes us a minor inconvenience for a few hours. So lobby your local politicians, threaten to move your domains if your webhost looks wobbly, and join the virtual picket against shoddy lawmaking.

[Image by Steve Rhodes]

Bad Thinking on the Communications Act

Disquieting news, from a short piece in IT News Africa yesterday, which outlined some of the measures in the Kenya Communications Amendment Act 2008, which is intended to supplant the Act of 1998.

Given the progress that has been made in the sector, it’s understandable that the Act would aim to protect the mobile sector. As such, if you should fiddle around with any “mobile phone equipment identity” without permission, you could find yourself liable to a Ksh1 million fine or five years enjoying the hospitality at Kamiti.

What is more troubling, in my view, is the upside-down logic of the other offences described in the article. Apparently, the Kenya ICT Federation (KIF) asked Mr Michael Murungi or Kenya Law Reports to review the legislation. He offered this gem:

Unauthorized access to or interception of computer services are lesser offences and should not attract higher fines and jail terms than an act which impairs the operation of the computer system.

That’s nice, dear. So essentially, I can install spyware on as many computers as I please, run a botnet, harvest sensitive data and basically run amok on a network, provided I don’t actually impede any other processes. Fabulous! It’s like a hacker’s charter. Don’t even think about jailbreaking your imported iPhone, though, or you’ll feel the long arm of the law.

I can’t help but feel that perhaps KIF would have been better off if they had asked Mr Murungi to go through the proposed legislation with a fine tooth comb and then decide what they considered to be the most important aspects of the legislation. Just as KIF would be close to useless if asked about tort law, so a lawyer is going to be as valuable as a chocolate teapot when dealing with IT matters.

So many people are dependent on mobile phones in Kenya today that compromising the telecoms system would obviously have the potential to cause massive disruption. That, however, shouldn’t preclude people from doing whatever they please with their own handsets. At the very most, all they have done is invalidate their warranties and/or break the terms of their contract with their service provider. That’s not a matter for the government, nor should it be a matter for the courts.

On the other hand, the “lesser offences” Mr Murungi describes are activities that could very well cripple not just an individual but an entire network of computers, and could release an untold amount of destructive software to futher victims. Unauthorized access to a machine is usually only the starting point. Now, I’m not saying that every jealous boyfriend who tries to hack into his girlfriend’s email should go to jail (just maybe to counselling), but it is important that those in charge understand that what seem like innocuous data breaches have the potential to become far more serious.

From the short report given, it does seem as though the KIF might be asleep at the wheel, and that they may not have thought through all the implications for their desired changes, nor the dangers of downgrading the risk from activities that may at first seem frivolous. Because if this is the quality of the legislation that is being passed now, heaven help us when Kenya suffers its first big techno-crime.

[Image by Aphrodite]

Media Bill: a Call for Subversion

So our esteemed president has signed the Media bill into effect. While I can imagine a number of media houses shaking in their boots and amending their editorial guidelines, this should not be the same for blogs and websites hosted outside of Kenya.

While the Bill includes provision for state agents to censor the content of newspapers, radio and television stations, there are steps that independent journalists and bloggers can take to ensure that their voices continue to be heard.

Ignore the mainstream media; they are effectively hamstrung by an unspoken good behaviour agreement. It would be interesting to see which outlet will be the first to publish an editorial critical of the government, but I personally won’t be waiting with bated breath. Those who wsh to highlight official corruption or misdeeds must now reach out to international media outlets to get information out, and also take steps to ensure that they stay on the right side of a number of laws.

First, for anyone thinking of publishing inflammatory material, do your best to make sure that it is true. A libel or defamation suit will bankrupt you, and you can be charged in a variety of jurisdictions, no matter where you actually live and work. Modifiers such as “allegedly” and “supposedly” are useful but can only do so much. Check and double-check your sources.

Also make sure that you put yourself beyond the reach of the Kenyan authorities. In a previous post on the subject we metioned the possibility of placing information on Wikileaks, but there are a number of similar websites, such as Indymedia, that could also serve the same purpose. Not only are these sites based outside Kenya, but if they do pick up your story they probably also have legal counsel who can ensure that you don’t get into any trouble.

Finally, it does look as though civil servants could actually become the most important media players around. Think about it: who has access to briefing papers, minutes of meetings and high-level discussions in various ministries? Who would be the first to know if a minister were fiddling his expenses or keeping a mistress on the side with funds earmarked for developments. These state employees are now probably more important than than they realise. If you are lucky enough to have one of these as a source, cultivate and protect them. Use anonymous emails to communicate with them, ensure that any notes you take cannot be easily consficated, and never give them up to colleagues, bosses or anyone else who might compromise them.

This media bill might actually be quite fun. We can start playing Spy Games with our own government. Who knows? We might actually win.

[Image by Antoon’s Foobar]

If the Media Bill is Passed…

The Jamhuri Day protests and subsequent arrests got me thinking: If President Kibaki does ratify the legislation, how might the Kenyan media go about protecting itself?

The sweeping powers given to the Minister for Internal Security to raid premises, coupled with the weakening of the Communication Commission of Kenya (CCK) and the lack of judicial oversight mean that it’s only natural that the Fourth Estate are worried.

The Media Bill could by used by vengeful politicians to settle scores, or to shut down dissent. Having the threat of being pulled from the air or the printers could make editors and their paymasters far more wary about chasing stories unfavourable to those in power. But if they are to continue to do so, they need to develop a strategy.

If I were a manager at Nation Media Group, I would be making myself very familiar with the procedures for getting information to Wikileaks, where a number of controversial Kenyan documents already reside. I would also be contacting the site’s administrators for assistance on how to keep contentious information beyond the reach of the government. I might also set up a parallel website on an out-of-country server where it is subject to a different legal regime.

For journalists, with the Bill possibly compelling them to name their sources, steps need to be taken to protect and preserve notes, and to anonymise sources when they are referred to. Meet sources face-to-face, rather than contact them on the telephone or by email. Perhaps arrange for a third party to store your notes for you, so that should your home or office be raided, there will not be anything the authorities might want to be confiscated.

I don’t mean to come over all Cold War underground, but this Bill was not borne of a concern for freedom of speech, nor did it come from a desire for more fair and impartial reporting. If the media is to remain as vibrant as it has become in the last few years, it needs to ensure that it does everything it can to stay out of the clutches of those who seek to silence it.

[Image by Borghetti]