Cellphone and Internet access helps – and hinders – accurate reporting in Kenya

An online mapping project depicts violence reported by ordinary Africans. But inaccurate or biased reports can serve to inflame tensions.

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Citizen news reports of major events have become more commonplace as cellphones and broad Internet access have made it easier to share eyewitness accounts. But in Kenya, where tensions and violence escalated after the disputed presidential elections of Dec. 27, 2007, their shortfalls have been exposed – particularly their ability to quickly spread incorrect information and inflammatory words.

Earlier this month, bloggers launched a website in an effort to track developments in Kenya, where more than 850 people have died in attacks and reprisals among different ethnic communities loyal to either President Mwai Kibaki or opposition leader Raila Odinga.

The group of bloggers, in Africa and the United States, set up the clickable online map at Ushahidi.com to counter what they suspected was official underestimation of the destruction and killings. Anyone can contribute a report to the site, from freelance journalists to ordinary Kenyans, and each report will be pinpointed on the map.

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The blogger Ory Okolloh, who runs the blog Kenya Pundit from South Africa, told the BBC in 2005 that the primary motivation for many Kenyan bloggers was creating a broader array of media options for the public.

The new mapping initiative is intended as a repository for futurereconciliation efforts; Ushahidi means "witness" or "testimony" in Swahili. Unlike international monitoring and news agency dispatches, the reports are intended to be immediate and can be reported by cellphone text message/SMS (short message service). [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized comments Ory Okolloh made to the BBC in 2005. Ms. Okolloh had been discussing Kenyan bloggers, rather than the recently launched map at ushahidi.com.]

Such reporting was central to letting the outside world know about protests in Burma (Myanmar) last fall, reports The Wall Street Journal.

In 2005 in Egypt, organizers used SMS and e-mail to rally against President Hosni Mubarak over a referendum to hold multiparty elections. Other mapping documentary projects, or "mapumentaries," have been organized less spontaneously, including a Crisis in Darfur map organized by the US Holocaust Museum; a site mapping environmental pollution set up The Center for Public Integrity; and a map of a neighborhood destroyed by a hurricane in Louisiana set up by a Dartmouth researcher.

The first real test of cellphone mobilization occurred in the Phillipines in 2002, reports The Christian Science Monitor. And experts say South Koreans changed the outcome of the 2002 election by using SMS messaging and the alternative news site OhMyNews.

But relying on user-generated content – without adequate fact-checking – can mean that information is skewed or falsified to inflame passions. The Rwandan media played a major role in inciting genocide in 1994. Last year, protests over an Asian-owned company's plans to cut down a national forest in Uganda resulted in at least one death, and the protests were reportedly organized through cellphone text messages, the BBC reported (though the link between messages and the killing was not formally established).

The US blogger Erik Hersman, who runs the White African, writes that web developer David Kobia, part of the team behind Ushahidi.com, is likely to abandon Mashada, another widely used forum about Kenya, since the online forum's verbal exchanges began to resemble the situation on the ground.

Organizers behind Ushahidi.com said they understood that false rumors could have major repercussions: more violence. As a result, they enlisted Daudi Were, a Kenyan blogger, who uses government sources, aid groups' information, and press reports so the site can verify each citizen report, reported Public Radio International.

In an e-mail to The Christian Science Monitor, Ms. Okolloh, said the site continued to work on verifying reports of violence.

Others in African media are also acutely aware of the ease with which instant communication can spark controversy. Mohammad Abubakr, who works at Kenya's Pamoja FM, told The Christian Science Monitor.

We're doing news, but we don't incite people.... We don't tell them [who should be] president, and make them want to fight. We tell them the situation in Kibera, which shops are open, where there is food, where there is fuel, where they can buy airtime for their cellphones.

Another hindrance is the so-called digital divide," and many Africans do not have access to mobile phone technology, although The New York Times reports that cellphone use is increasing by 30 to 40 percent per year.

With the recent violence, another factor is in play, reports Public Radio International: As vendors who sell prepaid phone cards close amid the violence, cellphone credits are also in short supply.

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