UNESCO MIL Alliance Kenya Chapter


By W. M. Gichunge*

For ages, false and misleading information has been used to create fear, restrict rights and disrupt democratic processes, observed UNESCO Director-General Ms. Audrey Azouley in her remarks during the 2020 Global Media and Information Literacy Conference, underscoring the complexity of today’s information environment where news and information are ubiquitous and can be shared instantly around the world. A cursory look at what happens for one minute on the Internet is simply mind-boggling. Today, anyone can create and distribute content, expressing themselves in ways they never could before. In some cases, this has created an overflow of information – both online and offline –where it is increasingly difficult for citizens to know what to believe and who to trust, creating potentially devastating implications for democracy, sustainable development and peace.

Technological advancement in the information and communication sector has heralded one of the most challenging aspects in the 21st Century Information Age – Disinformation and Misinformation. Pundits have observed that alongside the spread of COVID-19 around the world has an overflow of rumors and false information in what has the World Health Organisation (WHO) described as a disinfodemic. In these times of a global pandemic whose end is not yet predictable, citizens access to reliable and factual information means the difference between life and death. Unfortunately, there’s a worryingly big chunk of misleading and outrightly false information on the coronavirus especially on social media and messaging platforms. This portends a global crisis because, as has been noted by scholars, disinformation can have a strong and negative impact on public opinion, and people’s decision-making about social, health or political-economic issues. This scenario exacerbates in times of a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, it hinders people’s participation in democratic processes, inclusive governance, and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, among other societal aspirations.

On the political front, the social media platforms and usage are reshaping much of political communication in Africa and the globe, setting up new rules, winners and losers. As such, they are changing the way political parties and candidates campaign for public office; how they raise funds, mobilize support and establish and maintain relationships with the electorate; and how they fight their adversaries. Likewise, social media is changing the way people communicate, gather news and participate in political processes. Therefore, social media is fundamentally changing the conduct of political campaigns and elections (Ndlela & Mano, 2021). As Kenya enters into an election year with the general elections slated for August 2022, a heightened online and offline political discourse is imminent, and with it the attendant downsides such as circulation of rumors, hate speech, unsubstantiated claims, falsehoods and fake news. If allowed to thrive unabated, this phenomenon can undermine the democratic process and lead to misinformed choices, or worse, electoral violence.

From the foregoing, UNESCO has recommended that one of the strongest defenses against false and misleading information as well as hate speech is media and information literacy. This involves building the resilience of individuals, communities and societies through a combination of soft and hard skills: including critical thinking to evaluate messages and understand the ethics of digital technology; coding and other competencies to create and use technological solutions to solve social challenges. Media and information literacy is also treated as a prerequisite for individuals, communities and societies to enjoy and exercise their universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular; access to information, freedom of expression and the right to education. MIL is equally important for the existence of good governance, accountability and transparency for economic and societal development (UNESCO, 2013b).

Towards this end, UNESCO and global partners launched the Media and Information Literacy Week a decade ago to help spread MIL skills through networks, dialogue, advocacy, awareness creation and holding cross-cutting thematic activities at local, regional and international levels. In November 2019, UNESCO’s Member States made this event official to acknowledge the importance of MIL as a tool for development and proclaimed the Global Media and Information Literacy Week at its General Conference. In 2020, the Global MIL Week focused on the theme “Resisting the Disinfodemic: Media and Information Literacy for Everyone by Everyone”. This was in recognition that citizen’s ability to access and critically assess information is crucial – not only to save lives, but also to avoid failing into the trap of misinformation and disinformation. In addition to developing educational resources for social media, UNESCO updated the MIL Curriculum for Teachers, in consultation with MIL experts, teachers, and information and media professionals, to ensure that students across the globe are able to keep up with the rapid technological transformations of communication and information. Preparations for the 2021 Global MIL Week are underway, under the theme “Media and Information Literacy for the Public Good.” The Conference will be hosted by South Africa during the last week of October 2021.

Further, to spearhead the MIL agenda, UNESCO has recommended the establishment of alliances and partnerships comprising a variety of MIL actors to be created both locally and internationally to ensure information and knowledge exchange between civil society actors, regulators, government ministries, and international bodies with respect to MIL. This is in tandem with the UNESCO Media Information Literacy Alliance Strategy to form regional and National Chapters to act as networks for MIL initiatives.

The Centre for Media and Information Literacy (CMIL)-Kenya has partnered with UNESCO and other government and non-government players in media regulation, development, academic, civil society and youth organizations to formulate the Kenya Chapter of the UNESCO MIL Alliance. The Alliance, set to be launched in August is expected to consolidate the gains realized from the MIL initiatives across the country, and keep up the momentum in the journey towards the stated goal of MIL for All by All.

This will ensure that Kenyan citizens are empowered with media and information literacy (MIL) competencies and are able to distinguish disinformation from truthful information; are able to proactively use social media platforms as well as gainfully participate in political and other citizen discourses, among other MIL benefits.

*The Writer is a Media Literacy Expert and Director, CMIL-Kenya