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Home » Focus, Headline

Focus on Ushahidi: Kenya’s witness eye

Submitted by on February 2, 2012 – 16:07No Comment

The crowd voic­ing plat­form Ushahidi was founded three years ago in Kenya. One of the aims of this arti­cle is to track the posi­tion this web­site takes in the coun­try. Fur­ther­more we want to explore if Ushahidi cov­ers spe­cific needs con­cern­ing the coun­try – which are not cov­ered by other media. But to do a com­pre­hen­si­ble study of the role of Ushahidi, we need first to ana­lyze the con­text of the coun­try, its soci­ety, inter­nal con­flicts, and the role the media play in all this.

Kenya is sit­u­ated in East Africa, with 41 mil­lion inhab­i­tants, and hosts inside about 9 dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups (Kikuyu 22%, Luhya 14%, Luo 13%, Kalen­jin 12%, Kamba 11%, Kisii 6%, Meru 6%, other African 15%, non African 1%). There­fore, there are also sev­eral lan­guages in the coun­try, such as Eng­lish and Kiswahili –the offi­cial ones– and numer­ous indige­nous languages.

Lit­er­acy among pop­u­la­tion is about 85%. This, plus the country’s eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion, draws the map of the media in Kenya:

Radio is the most con­sumed media with more than 20 radio sta­tions. This media is so pop­u­lar because every­one can afford one. In fact, Guy Col­len­der, author of the media analy­sis “The media in Kenya”, states that every home has a radio, whereas the tele­vi­sions are con­cen­trated in urban áreas and are watched via satel­lite by wealthy peo­ple. Most of the radios’ pro­grams are based on enter­tain­ment, music and talk shows, and each one is emit­ted in a dif­fer­ent Kenyan language.

As the TV, Inter­net is not a main media, due to dif­fi­cul­ties to com­puter and wire Access in the rural areas. Its users are mostly con­cen­trated in the city.

There are four main news­pa­pers in Kenya, all pub­lished in English:

- The Daily Nation, pub­lished by the biggest media house in East­ern and Cen­tral Africa, the Nation Media Group (NMG);

- The Stan­dard (pre­vi­ously the East African Stan­dard), owned among oth­ers, by the for­mer Kenyan pres­i­dent Daniel Arap Moi;

- Peo­ple Daily, owned by the oppo­si­tion politi­cian Keneth Matiba;

- Kenya Times, estab­lished by the KANU party –from for­mer pres­i­dent Daniel Arap Moi.

Even if all of them have polit­i­cal incli­na­tions, a report from the US on the Human Rights on Kenya states that in the last years they are all on their way to inde­pen­dency. How­ever, they also observe that jour­nal­ists prac­tice self-censorship due to fear to Government’s reprisals. It means not only the Gov­ern­ment as an insti­tu­tion, but also its offi­cials and other influ­en­tial per­sons. The report also claims that some cor­rupted jour­nal­ists hold or write a story –even if they make it up– to guar­an­tee these per­sons interests.

Besides, the Gov­ern­ment approved in 2009 a law which would allow author­i­ties to raid media offices, tap phones, and con­trol broad­cast con­tent, in order to ensure national security.

To draw a big­ger pic­ture of the media sit­u­a­tion, it is impor­tant to men­tion the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of Kenya, focus­ing on the last years. In 2007, there was a post elec­toral con­flict among two main par­ties, as both can­di­dates claimed to have won the elec­tions. This led to vio­lent clashes among the pop­u­la­tion, that caused about 1500 deaths, 1000 rapes and about 300.000 fam­i­lies displaced.

In 2008 both politi­cians did a pact in order to end the vio­lence, shar­ing both the power in Government.

This was the rea­son why Ushahidi was founded, three years ago, by Kenyian born Ory Orkol­loh, out of a vol­un­tary effort. She grad­u­ated from law school and worked for a human rights group in Kenya. Her aim was to gather infor­ma­tion about what is hap­pen­ing to the cit­i­zens dur­ing an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion. Ushahidi means ‘tes­ti­mony’ in Swahili.

Ory Orkol­loh was deeply con­cerned about the lack of infor­ma­tion avail­able from the tra­di­tional media, which stood under gov­ern­men­tal cen­sor­ship. There­fore she cre­ated a plat­form easy to use and acces­si­ble to any­one, which should deploy world­wide what is going on in this war-torn coun­try. Any­body can con­tribute to infor­ma­tion by a sim­ple text mes­sage from a phone or by send­ing pho­tos or videos from a smart­phone. At that time, Ushahidi reached 45.000 users in Kenya.

Every­one could upload eye­wit­ness reports, on a dig­i­tal map of the coun­try, about what was hap­pen­ing. Color-coded mark­ers helped iden­tify the loca­tions of gov­ern­ment forces and refugees, pin­point­ing where riots, loot­ing, rapes and other acts of vio­lence were occur­ring. Later on, this plat­form has been used to mon­i­tor unrest in Congo or to track vio­lence in Gaza. But it was also applied to mon­i­tor the 2009 elec­tions in India. In the same year with the out­break of the swine flu, reports were gath­ered glob­ally to inform cit­i­zens about the peak and the pro­gres­sion of the epidemic.

Nowa­days Ushahidi is reg­is­tered as a non-profit organ­i­sa­tion. The Ushahidi plat­form is a col­lab­o­ra­tive project cre­ated by vol­un­teers and man­aged by a core team. The core team orig­i­nally started Ushahidi in Kenya and work­ing dur­ing their free time. Since then, they have moved to work on the plat­form full time and most of them come from dif­fer­ent coun­tries in Africa, but also in Europe, South Amer­ica and the US.

Ushahidi is financed by pub­lic dona­tion that can be made directly on the web­site via Pay­Pal but the organ­i­sa­tion also receives fund­ing from invest­ment firms and other part­ners such as for exam­ple Google.

Ushahidi chal­lenges to close the gap between eye­wit­ness reports of peo­ple who insist to reveal what is hap­pen­ing in their envi­ron­ment and the manip­u­la­tion, dis­in­for­ma­tion of pub­lic insti­tu­tion that want to cover the tracks. Thus, Ory Okol­loh acknowl­edges that the plat­form can’t replace pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ism. ‘We can­not totally elim­i­nate mis­in­for­ma­tion, this is inher­ent in any cit­i­zen report­ing’, she says. ‘But we can make eas­ier for peo­ple to make deci­sions’.

To con­clude, the plat­form was born on an intrin­sic need of enlight­en­ment and jus­tice for its cit­i­zens and for media who were not able to over­look the whole sit­u­a­tion of what really going on in Kenya. With­out set­ting one­self in dan­ger it was pos­si­ble to track the ‘hotspots’ of riots and it allowed cit­i­zens to flee from vio­lence and find shel­ter elsewhere.

Also it could be seen as a role model to many other coun­tries to take a new way to gather infor­ma­tion with­out rely­ing on offi­cial gov­ern­men­tal sources, because indi­vid­u­als might won’t be cor­rupted or cen­sored. How­ever, it is hard to ver­ify the accu­racy of the infor­ma­tion pro­vided as a cit­i­zen, due to per­sonal inter­ests or lack of com­pre­hen­sive knowledge.

Besides, Ushahidi’s range of cov­er­age is way too small. In fig­ures: Out of a 41 mil­lion inhab­i­tants in Kenya only 45.000 inter­net users were con­sult­ing the plat­form. This is prob­a­bly because rather edu­cated peo­ple can afford tech­ni­cal devises and Inter­net access.

This lead to an inter­est­ing point: that enlight­en­ing media is not reach­able to every­one. The main news­pa­pers are only in Eng­lish, and TV and Inter­net– one of the main sources of free infor­ma­tion– is for priv­iledged peo­ple. At the same time, radios, which are the most used in Kenya, are mostly based in light enter­tain­ment pro­grams. Poor peo­ple or those who live in the coun­try­side can’t reach ‘hard’ and ‘free’ information.

To sum up, Ushahidi is a very inter­est­ing project that offers infor­ma­tion which other Kenyan media don’t, as it is free from government’s threats. How­ever, its big­ger prob­lem is that it can rather reach the rich­est inhabitants.

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  3. Cit­i­zen ini­tia­tive for Media Plu­ral­ism: from Brus­sels to Bologna
  4. Anne-Marie Impe: “For a per­ma­nent edu­ca­tion journalism”
  5. Argentina’s take on guar­an­tee­ing media plurality

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