Unchartered Waters: ICTs in Human Rights

Founded in 1992, the Kenya Human Rights Commission is one of the oldest and pioneer human rights organizations in Kenya and indeed a premier human rights body.  The organization has often taken on difficult human rights initiatives mainly in the first generation rights of civil and political rights. Some of these initiatives include transitional justice such as detention without trial, torture, unexplained disappearances and assassinations. All of the KHRC’s human rights and democracy work has been carried out through various innovative strategies using methodologies of the prevailing times. These include advocacy and policy influencing, documentation, mass media, publications and materials production. Thus when the KHRC was invited to a workshop by the Swedish Programme for ICTs in Developing Regions (Spider), it was another great opportunity for the organization to not only take lead in the civil society sector in non-traditional methodologies but also to learn new and innovative ideas in the sector. 

What Have We Been Up to Lately

One of the earliest and easiest platforms that the project deployed is social media. While the KHRC already had Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts, they had not really been well utilized. However, since the commencement of the project, things have been turned around such that information published on the website can now be pushed further by sharing through Facebook and Twitter. For instance, in August 2011, the KHRC published a book on corruption and impunity of past injustices. The book, titled “Lest We Forget: The Faces of Impunity in Kenya,” was launched through the traditional mass media and sold out. The online copy hit a record 1,000 downloads on the day it was first uploaded and 13,780 downloads in the first month. There was a Facebook link created for it as well which helped further push the publication but also drew public interest in dialogue. It is a document which the public can use to audit who should not be eligible for elections based on corruption records.  The book is available for download here.

The KHRC has also been sharing documentary videos through YouTube as part of educating the public on human rights and governance issues. Recently, during the celebrations of the 2012 International Human Rights Day (IHRD), the KHRC held a series of community outreaches in Nairobi which included public forums and legal aid clinics. This culminated in the Annual Human Rights Lecture whose theme was “Judiciary, a Bastion for Constitutionalism”. Snippets of the event were uploaded on YouTube with the hope that it will stir up conversations about the implementation of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010, a process which is currently under siege from anti-reform forces in and outside the Government.  One snippet features judicial and legal experts as well as some human rights activists while the other features the views from the participants during the question and answer session. The snippets are available here.

Finally, the KHRC was privileged to host a team from the Commission on Human Rights and Good Governance (CHRAGG), which is the national human rights institute of Tanzania. The team from Tanzania visited in order to learn how the bulk sms system works. The KHRC system is not yet up however we were able to have our service provider conduct a demo for the Tanzanian team. This was a shared learning experience for the two organizations as it was a challenge for the KHRC to ensure its own deployment is up in order to be able to share with CHRAGG how the system works.

Wilfred Warioba, (centre) Head of ICTs at CHRAGG together with his colleagues pay close attention as George Mburu, bulk sms service provider demonstrates how the system works 

The Learning Curve

Since the project began, it has been an exiting journey of learning a lot of lessons. It is also interesting to note that there are quiet a number of individuals and organizations interested in the project and an opportunity for the KHRC to showcase this new area of work, should it succeed. So far KHRC has been able to learn a lot while implementing the project. As an organization that is not technologically oriented, the project required quite a bit of research in order to find out what technologies to deploy. This has been through workshops and bi-lateral cooperation with other organizations and individuals.

One key area of learning has been in the area of policy development. Any organization venturing into ICTs as a tool for engagement with the public ought to have an ICT or social media policy. This is crucial because the dynamic of how one runs an individual’s own account is different from those of how runs or manages an organization’s online presence and a simple mistake can have a serious impact on how the organization deals with its publics. For instance, there are all sorts of people out there and when an individual or organization joins any of the social media platforms, one should be prepared for all manner of responses and attacks from the people. There people who speak from a point of ignorance while others are just out rightly rude, arrogant or malicious. It is imperative that the organization has a policy that provides guidelines for online behavior of the staff managing the platforms it uses otherwise it is easy to be drawn into unnecessary exchanges that can give the organization a negative image.

Since ICT4D is a relatively new area of work for most civil society organizations, there needs to be a lot of information sharing within the civil society so that the sector can embrace the changing engagement landscape. Besides information sharing amongst the CSOs it is also important to have multi-sectoral forums which include developers, CSOs (user side), development partners and beneficiaries in order to identify gaps and best practices that can be related.

As an organization, we have learnt too that when utilized well, ICT4D can complement the traditional methodologies and cascade its work. A case in point is using YouTube to share videos, where we have learnt that it helps drive traffic to our website and vice-versa. However we have also learned that long videos take long to download thus not too many people watch them, especially if they are not necessarily entertaining, thus we are working on getting shorter versions of key messages even though it is not easy to reduce complex human rights issues on documentaries to  two-minute versions.

Finally, we look forward to having all our platforms up and running soon where we expect more public dialogue to take place. For example, the citizen participation website  once complete will further help the public debate issues that the human rights networks raise in a community paper called Mizizi Ya Haki (Roots of Rights) that now will be uploaded on the site. This is indeed very exciting as now much of what we do shall be scaled up to reach audience not reached before and therefore we must exploit every opportunity it has afforded us.

Hurinet regional Mizizi Ya Haki editors planning for the next edition in Nairobi at the National editorial meeting. Through ICT4D, the community newspaper will find a wider audience than it currently does

“If you are not on these platforms (social media and other web tools), where are you?” – Ally Khan Sachu, a Nairobi Economist, commenting  during a TV interview on reports that Kenya is top in use of Twitter, only second to South Africa,  AFRICA: Kenya is second most active on twitter.