Church starvation cult: Kenyan authorities powerless to take down pastor’s social media videos

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Ezra Chiloba – the CEO of Kenya’s Communications Authority – revealed that the agency doesn’t have any legal power to act on social media content. This response follows an inquiry by the Senate Ad Committee set up to probe the starvation cult saga which saw the deaths of more than 300 people.

The cult is reportedly connected to Good News International Church which is headed by Paul Mackenzie. Mackenzie, the prime suspect, is accused of encouraging his members to starve to death so they can meet Jesus.

Despite being in police custody, his sermons – many of which are controversial– can be viewed on YouTube, a social media platform. Aside from calling members on to stave, Mackenzie preached against the Huduma Numba initiative, tagging it a mark of the beast. He even warned members against registering for the government-issued identity card

Explaining the CA’s inability to clamp down on Mackenzie’s digital content, Chiloba said that the social media platforms are owned by non-Kenyans, a fact that insulates them from the existing regulations.

What we are doing is putting up content together so that we can build up a case with international social media companies so that they will be able to pull down the content related to Pastor Makenzi and any other misleading religious content in the country.” 

366 dead bodies have been recovered from the Shakahola forest in Kilifi County, the location where Mackenzie and the church members resided until his arrest. The authorities expect to discover more mass graves as 613 followers remain unaccounted for.

Read also: #FreeSenegal: ‘Our people are literally suffering!’ due to intermittent internet shutdowns

A case for meaningful social media regulation 

The inability to take down Mackenzie’s content, or anyone else’s for that matter, echoes a lapse in Kenya’s laws regarding digital media. Admittedly, technology is rapidly growing, and many countries are struggling to keep up with the necessary regulations to ensure proper use.  

Nowadays, people turn to social media for information, entertainment, and job opportunities. But then, some rogue elements are known for misusing the platforms for harmful purposes like misinformation or hate speech. 

Two Kenyan senators expressed their displeasure at Chiloba’s statement that his agency lacks the powers to tackle offensive digital content. But then, it’s worth asking if the lawmakers weren’t aware of social media’s negative side until now. Or if they aren’t aware of how powerless their laws are over social media content.

Mackenzie’s ideologies resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Kenyans, with many more yet to be found. Many will argue that his sermons on YouTube help him reach a wider audience. Aside from contentious religious messages, social media has proven to be very useful for fraudsters, kidnappers, and other criminals. 

Instead of bemoaning the situation, perhaps it’s time for the people who Kenyans elected to represent their interests actually act. Ironically, Tabitha Mutinda – one of the senators – said this issue was “posing great harm to the country and something urgent needs to be done to reverse the trend.” 

All over Africa, there have been calls for social media regulation. This has been opposed by many human rights groups who claim such decisions negatively impact citizens’ right to expression. Lesotho, Uganda, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, and Zimbabwe are among a growing list of countries that have introduced laws guiding social media use. 

Kenya, too, proposed a bill that would regulate the actions of social media users in 2019. However, the bill titled – Kenya Information and Communication (Amendment) Bill 2019 – attracted great criticism because it seemed designed to infringe on digital rights. It was also tagged an extreme move to control social media. For instance, it proposed that bloggers and platform administrators (WhatsApp and Facebook) would need to register for operating licenses.  

Instead of imposing strict rules like the one above, the bill could have focused on a clear problem: the proliferation of harmful content. Again, African governments have, on many occasions, tagged opposing views on political issues as hate speech. Senegal and Guinea recently restricted access to social media platforms under the guise of “political unrest.” 

Such practices make the talk of social media regulations difficult to navigate. Kenya has an opportunity to make things right in the eye of citizens and ramp up negotiations with social media platforms to enable it to checkmate the excesses of criminal elements. 

The lawmakers must also empower the country’s regulatory agencies to act on issues like this. Mackenzie isn’t the first religious leader with extremist views and provided that social media platforms aren’t properly regulated, he won’t be the last. 

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