Covering elections and promoting press freedom by phone

[Kenya] Voters wait to cast their ballots at Westlands, Nairobi, during Monday's referendum on a new constitution.
Voters wait to cast their ballots at Westlands, Nairobi, during Monday's referendum on the proposed constitution (John Nyaga/IRIN)

Mobile phones have revolutionised communication in Africa. They provide tools for small-scale business, connect families separated by long distances and can even be used to send and receive money. This year’s Kenyan elections should also be a milestone in the role of mobiles in politics and the media.

Kenya is one of four countries involved in a pilot programme, Voices of Africa, which aims to use new mobile technology to better equip struggling young journalists.

“Africa is experiencing a new revolution in journalism but African governments do not know it is happening,” said Evans Wafula, Kenyan coordinator of Voices of Africa

In the coming months, reporters will receive mobile phones with relatively high-speed data connections, using General Packet Radio System (GPRS), a service running on an increasing number of African networks, which allows users to send and receive large amounts of data, such as audio and images.

Multimedia content will be uploaded on to a server directly from the field, allowing reporters to be first with the news. “First witness accounts is what we want for journalism: first-hand news and scoops,” says Wafula.

Not only that, but these innovations can do more than traditional media, Wafula says. “Technology has to be incorporated in journalism. The telephone is used to document, it’s a complete office. It takes human rights to the next level; perpetrators can be held accountable.”

Independent reporting

The project, also launched in Ghana, Mozambique and South Africa, is an initiative of Africa Interactive Media Foundation, one of the largest international online communities grouping people interested in Africa, founded by Pim de Wit, the former Dutch magazine publisher, and Skoeps, a Dutch news website for pictures and short videos using mobile phones. Skoeps was launched in 2006, with shareholders such as Talpa, a Dutch broadcaster, and PCM, which owns four large Dutch newspapers. The pilot is funded by the ASN Bank; the foundation is looking for donor funding.

Wafula raised concerns over a new draft Media Bill in Kenya, designed to regulate the industry, which includes powers to gag or even shut down media houses.


Photo: Evans Wafula
A photograph taken with a mobile phone at the scene of an explosion in central Nairobi, June 2007

“With the new Media Bill, the pen and paper are doomed. The Media Bill takes a lot of achievements back five more years,” he says. “Mobile journalism makes it easier to independently broadcast, without the fear of the government confiscating the mobile phone.”

According to Wafula, local media will be able to tap into the resources of Voices of Africa. He says: “If the project succeeds it can spread and many media organisations can use it for publishing stories on Africa. The Daily Nation, Kenya Times and Citizen TV have shown interest in this pilot and want to know what the results will be.”

So far, the project has reported a successful test in sending images from all across Kenya, including rural and remote areas. Wafula says this prepares Voices of Africa for the mammoth task of covering the election results from hundreds of constituencies in December.

Embracing the future

The project’s journalists are among the millions of users of Kenya’s largest mobile network, Safaricom, who can send and receive photos and small audio or video clips using the multi-media messaging service (MMS). “It allows journalists to publish online instantly and unobtrusively,” says chief executive officer Michael Joseph.

“MMS service is available to all mobile users, and journalists can easily exploit the capabilities of this to suit their requirements. They can directly post images and reports to websites remotely while on the move.”

Jacob Otieno, head of the Kenya’s Standard newspaper’s photo unit, says readers will soon be able to contribute pictures from their phones. “The moment a powerful news picture is taken by a cell phone and published, it will be the breakthrough for mobile technology in Kenya,” he says.

Mainstream media is also looking to the technology to boost election coverage. In Kenya, a number of local news agencies have already upgraded their systems to send and receive cell phone images and broadcast news texts using the short message service (SMS).

Chris Odwesso, editor-in-chief of Times News Services, says the 2007 election results will be sent by SMS from each constituency as they are announced. “It makes it very open and precludes the manipulation of the results as they are counted openly. It will make the elections transparent,” he says.

Eric Shimoli, news editor of the Nation Media Group, agreed that this technology would be “of tremendous help” during the elections. They expect to have all the facilities to receive and use cell phone images of both reporters as well as citizens throughout the country for the elections.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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