Is Jacob Juma Kenya's First Digital Martyr?

Jacob Juma wore many hats in his time, but the biggest and most flamboyant of all his hats was undoubtedly his digital persona, @kabetes, had, at the time of his sudden passing, almost grown bigger than the man himself.

His mysterious username, was awkwardly befitting of the man’s digital persona. The digital Jacob Juma was enigmatic, loud, bold, brash and always up for a fight. If the Kenyan twittersphere was a bar, he’s that guy you just couldn’t miss once you stepped in.

One-man army

Of all the digital brawls kabetes got into, he had a particular penchant for one opponent; the Government of Kenya. The government has succumbed to many punches online over the years, and kabetes can boast of a healthy share of the scars. Criticizing government is a favourite sport among Kenyans, but what made kabetes stand out was the extent of his criticism. He was willing, and able to push the boundaries, publicly calling out certain names most Kenyans wouldn’t dare to.

His biggest asset was information; the almighty currency of the digital age. His sources were a mystery, but his information was tough to argue with and those who dared argue with it almost always lived to regret it. This was the heart and soul of kabetes; a one-man army taking on the establishment. It was the core of his appeal to many Kenyans.

In a system where most of the time the citizens felt powerless against the political establishment, one of them stood up and and did what many of them could only dream of. He repeatedly danced in the fire and emerged unscathed. How could he say so much and get away with it? Was the establishment actually afraid of him? How could that be? It was unfathomable. kabetes was the heroic bad-boy, through whom they were living vicariously, relishing every second of it. And then he fell.

Did Jacob Juma get killed because of his digital activities? What do Kenyans on Twitter think?

On the morning of May 6, Kenyans woke up to the news that Jacob Juma had been shot dead in mysterious circumstances. It was shocking news and nowhere was this shock felt more than on Twitter. The dream was over, their hero had been slain. For many digitally attuned Kenyans, all they knew of Jacob Juma was his digital persona, @kabetes. Consequently, our analysis reveals that the general perception is that Jacob Juma was murdered for his activities on social media.

Friends and enemies

Investigations into the cause of Jacob Juma’s death are still ongoing and as such we cannot conclusively say who murdered him and why. However, one thing cannot be argued with; Jacob Juma was Jacob Juma in a large part because of ‘kabetes’. His digital persona and its activities had redefined who the man was. He made a lot of friends and enemies by being kabetes. Through digital platforms, many Kenyans had gotten familiar with the man and his ever-intriguing updates. He was massively influential in Kenya’s social media universe and might have been slain for it. It would be safe to say that in the minds of many Kenyans, Jacob Juma is Kenya’s first “Digital Martyr”.
After Jacob Juma: Can Kenyans Really Speak Freely Anymore?

From Odipo Dev's analysis of the data, the first three days after Jacob Juma’s death featured an emotional cocktail of sadness mixed with anger, confusion and calls for justice. In many ways, the opinions expressed by Kenyans after Jacob Juma’s death shows that they were experiencing a crisis of expression, with many eliciting their outrage and confusion as to why he was murdered, as well as the brutal nature of how it happened. From our analysis, we infer that many Kenyans feel that their freedom of expression is under significant threat after the death of Jacob Juma.

To understand this feeling, we have to look at the larger context of Kenya’s freedom of expression atmosphere. Kenya’s digital space has evolved at a much faster pace than almost all other African countries. Bloggers and social media personalities have become highly influential over the past few years. The increase in fast and affordable internet across the country has enabled Kenya’s growing class of digitally skilled citizens to become content creators and alternative sources of news and information.

As of 2015, there is an estimated 5.2 million Kenyans on Facebook and 2.4 million on Twitter, and according to the Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE), approximately 15,000 blogs registered with them by mid-2015.

Online freedom of speech

Individual internet users in Kenya are generally comfortable expressing themselves openly online, though the use of digital platforms to spread ethnic commentary continues to pose a serious challenge to freedom of expression in Kenya, particularly during politically contentious periods such as the national elections.

Kenya does not actively block nor filter internet content, and Kenyans have unrestricted access to social networking platforms and communication applications such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Wordpress, all of which rank among the 20 most popular websites in the country.

However, there has been an uncomfortable increase in infringements upon online freedoms of expression in recent years in Kenya. In 2015, an unprecedented number of Kenyan bloggers and social media users were arrested and, in some cases, charged with “misuse of licensed telecommunications equipment”, mainly for their online commentary criticizing government officials.

So far, 15 individuals have been arrested for posting on digital media between January and March 2016, with the most recent arrests occurring after the Central Bank of Kenya blamed social media for the collapse of Chase Bank Kenya (since reopened).

Online freedom of expression is mainly threatened by a provision in the 2013 Kenya Information and Communications Act (KICA) that penalizes the “misuse of licensed telecommunications equipment” for disseminating “offensive” or “annoying” messages. It is increasingly common for government officials in Kenya to turn to the courts to compel intermediaries to take action against defamatory content posted online about them.

Despite these recent developments, violence against online journalists and ordinary internet users is not common in Kenya. Before Jacob Juma’s mysterious death, one other case of similar magnitude involved the chief editor of the controversial news blog Jackal News, Dickson Bogonko Bosire, who as of 2016 remains missing after he mysteriously disappeared in September 2013. Bosire had periodically experienced threats in response to his blog’s coverage of corruption investigations and scandals, which had led him to go into hiding or flee Nairobi on several occasions.

Digital is not so digital any more...

Kenya’s digital space has matured significantly to a point where the separation of online and offline has become more blurry every passing day. Online actions are driving offline reactions.
In Kenya, digital is not so digital any more.

Jacob Juma’s death, and the strong perception that it might have very well been caused by his online activism, might prove to be a pivotal inflection point on Kenya’s digital trajectory. As we have mentioned, @kabetes was more than just another Twitter account. kabetes grew to represent the test of Kenya’s freedom of expression online.

The fact that Jacob Juma had never been arrested, despite how close to the edge he tittered online, meant something to Kenyans. His wealth and connections might have been a factor in this, but his larger-than-life presence on digital still provided some sort of psychological security. kabetes was the definition of true, unadulterated freedom of expression being exercised by one of them. kabetes is no more and this sense of security has evaporated with him.

Going forward, there is a strong possibility that we will witness increased self-censorship online as Kenyans exercise caution especially when it comes to criticising the government.

View Odipo Dev's interactive data visualization accompanying this story HERE (best viewed on desktop)
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This study was conducted by the Odipo Dev team using Dive Analytics, their social intelligence platform. With Dive, you are able to make your social data work for you through iterative data analysis and insight sessions.

Cover Image by Odipo Dev] | Originally Published Medium