Social media

The internet, especially social media, has become a double-edged sword. On one hand, the platform provides an avenue where useful information can be shared widely.

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The rise and rise of image-based abuse

What you need to know:

  • Murigi Kamande, an advocate of the High Court, says that sending unsolicited nude photos and pornographic clips to women is a sexual offence for which you can seek legal redress.

In June 2021, socialite Bridget Achieng woke up to naked photos and videos of her on social media. The video had been leaked by a stranger and went viral after Instagram blogger Edgar Obare posted them. Although Edgar censored bits of the clip, his post elicited wild reactions online.

Within minutes, the uncensored photos and videos of Bridget surfaced on social media and were shared all over Facebook, Twitter and Telegram. The blogs carried the story under catchy headlines including, ‘Check out 10 nude photos Bridget Achieng shared online for fame. Explicit: Bridget Achieng’s nude video leaked by friends!’

Online, the conversation quickly moved to body shaming and cyber bullying. Social media users made nasty comments about Bridget’s physical features and weight. At one point, she pleaded with the public to stop circulating the video for the sake of her son.

A few days later, the spotlight turned to presidential aspirant Dr Mukhisa Kituyi. A video allegedly depicting him naked with a woman also went viral on social media, resulting in another hot debate. This time, the argument was centred on how and why society reacts differently when a man’s nude photo is leaked online from when the unpleasant photos belong to a woman.

Whereas Bridget’s leaked video was met with fierce criticism and used to humiliate her, Dr Kituyi’s alleged video was dismissed as an act of sabotage by malicious individuals who were out to tarnish the name of an internationally recognised diplomat. In fact, days after the video began circulating, Dr Kituyi dismissed it as the work of malicious Photoshop artists.

Ms Achieng and Dr Kituyi are not the only people whose photos in compromising situations surfaced online. Telegram has particularly become a hotspot for leaked nude photos and revenge porn. There are even channels online where Kenyan women are paraded and body shamed.

In 2020, for example, after the government announced that Brenda Cherotich was Kenya’s first Covid-19 patient, photos of her in compromising situations were leaked online and circulated widely on Telegram.

The photos were leaked, allegedly to punish Brenda for agreeing to be part of the government’s public relations game. When popular TV anchor Yvonne Okwara came to Brenda’s defence, she instantly became the object of mockery, ridicule, and body shaming.

She was accused of being a toxic feminist and of applying double standards since she had been quiet when West Pokot Governor John Lonyangapuo was facing the same negative publicity after his nude photos and intimate text messages were leaked a few weeks prior.

The internet, especially social media, has become a double-edged sword. On one hand, the platform provides an avenue where useful information can be shared widely.

On the other hand, social media has become a space where Kenyan women are cyber bullied or shamed for various reasons. This sharing of nude photos and sex tapes as a tool of revenge or to shame and bully women has become the fad in Kenya’s social media circles.

Over the past few years, victims have included popular names like singers Karen Lucas aka Kaz and Avril, Woman Rep Fatuma Gedi and many other fairly unknown women such as Tasha Mukami. Tasha recalls the afternoon of June 1, 2021 with a shudder.

It was the day her ex-boyfriend shared her nude photos on a Telegram channel. “I had traveled upcountry for Madaraka Day holiday. As we were having lunch with my family, I started getting texts from friends telling me that nude pictures of me were on Telegram,” she says.

At first, Tasha thought it was a bad joke. But when she checked her Whatsapp, she got screenshots from strange numbers, sharing the nudes and asking if she was available for a sex hook up. “In addition to the nude photos, my ex-boyfriend had also shared my telephone number. He claimed that I was a commercial sex worker who charged for nude photos, videos, and hook ups.”

Tasha was devastated. Her self-esteem was shattered.

“I felt as if my character had been dragged through mud. Whenever I walked in the streets, I felt as if everyone could see through my clothes. I felt naked. I felt so ashamed,” she says.

Tasha, 28, was forced to move from her neighbourhood, change her mobile number, and delete all her social media accounts.

“I am still recovering. I didn’t imagine someone could shame another person so badly simply because they had been rejected. I don’t know if I will ever trust another man again,” she says.

An assessment of the Telegram channel where her nudes were leaked reveals a dark platform where every passing minute, women’s nude pictures are shared with a huge audience.

Other channels such as the Alphas, Betas and Omegas are disguised as sports betting platforms but in reality, they are an avenue for parading and shaming naked women. The tagline on this platform hides nothing: If you have nudes, send them here!

Most of the nude pictures and video clips are sourced from men who are out to shame or bully women they were previously romantically engaged with. The channel also allows men to post their partners and inquire if any members have ever been sexually engaged with them. It has a membership of over 40,000 Kenyans.

Some also use such platforms to extort money from victims. In 2019 for example, nude photos of Ella Ciru, an actress on the controversial TV programme Nairobi Diaries were leaked online after she refused to pay up.

The photos were reportedly leaked by her former lover after she refused to send him Sh20,000. Incidentally, Bridget was also an actress in the same programme.

There have been attempts aimed at curbing the sharing of nudes without consent. In 2016, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe crafted the Cyber Security and Protection Bill which proposed a fine of Sh300,000, a jail term of 30 years, or both, for any person convicted of leaking nude photos and videos without consent.

“A person who transfers, publishes, or disseminates, including making a digital depiction available for distribution or downloading through any other means of transferring data to a computer, the intimate image of another person commits an offence and is liable, on conviction, to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 30 years or fine not exceeding three hundred thousand shillings or both,” Article 8 of the Bill proposed.

The policy was, however, withdrawn in December 2016 following concerns that other sections of it needed to be relooked. In 2018, however, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act.

The law criminalises revenge porn and states that offenders will be liable to a fine of Sh200,000 or an imprisonment of not more than two years, or both, upon conviction.

However, even in the absence of the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act, leaking someone’s nudes without their consent is breaching their right to privacy under Article 31 (c) of the 2010 Constitution, which protects individuals’ right to keep matters relating to their private affairs under wraps.

Murigi Kamande, an advocate of the High Court, says that sending unsolicited nude photos and pornographic clips to women is a sexual offence for which you can seek legal redress.

“The Sexual Offences Act states that ‘indecent act’ includes an unlawful intentional act which causes exposure or display of any pornographic material to any person against their will. The sending of unsolicited nude photos and video clips falls within this category of offences,” he says and adds that when you encounter such offenses, you should report the matter to the police so that the person who leaked the images or clips can be prosecuted.

“If found guilty, the perpetrator will be liable for a term not exceeding five years or a fine not exceeding Sh50,000 or both,” says Kamande. If the unsolicited explicit photos and videos have been sent to a user below the age of 18, the sender will be liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than 10 years.

The Data Protection Act 2019 also provides an avenue through which persons who leak personal information including photos, data concerning sex life, sexual orientation and even contacts can be arrested. The Act allows victims whose nudes have been leaked through platforms such as blogs, without their consent, to seek legal compensation.

Unfortunately, many of those whose private photos and videos are leaked online do not know that they can seek legal redress. Others are afraid that going to court will keep the shameful spotlight on them.

“Many opt to let the matter rest as opposed to seeking justice in court. They reason that although the court might award them damages, their dignity will already have been compromised,” says Tasha.

Her sentiments are echoed by Pauline Osewe, 33, who says that when her nudes were leaked by her ex-lover last year, she opted to blame Photoshop instead of going to court. “Denial is the best form of escape. If you go to court, will you also sue the thousands who have shared and circulated the pictures all over?” she asks.

There are women, however, who have been bold enough to go to court. One of them is Roshanara Ebrahim. She filed a civil case at the High Court in 2016 under case number Petition No. 361.

In the case, Roshanara sued her former boyfriend for leaking her nudes, which led to her disqualification from the Miss Kenya beauty pageant.

On December 7, 2016, the High Court’s Constitutional and Human Rights Division ordered the third respondent, known as Frank Zahlten, to pay Roshanara Sh1 million for violating her rights to privacy. Court documents showed that Zahlten had sent nude photos of Roshanara to Ashleys Kenya CEO Terry Mungai on July 28, 2016.

In his ruling, Justice Edward Muriithi further barred Zahlten from publishing or sharing any of Ms Roshanara’s photos. Zahlten had allegedly leaked the nude photos of Ms Roshanara after she dumped him.

This new form of online sexual assault doesn’t end with leaking nudes. Many women are being bombarded with nude photos and images of private parts even when they never asked for them, from men they hardly know. Ruth Ndunge was not prepared for the message she received on her Facebook inbox three weeks ago.

“I was scrolling through my timeline when I saw a friend request, which I accepted. Immediately, I was notified that I had a new message. I opened it, thinking it was the usual ‘Hi’ message that comes with a new friend request,” she says. When she clicked on the message, she was shocked and disgusted to find a GIF of a man toying with his private parts!

“It was sent by the man whose request I had just accepted. I was disgusted and disturbed. I felt so disrespected!” she says. Ruth immediately unfriended and blocked the contact. Just like Ruth, Lucy Jepkorir has been ambushed by explicit content from men she didn’t know after accepting their Facebook friend requests. “Whenever I get such explicit content, I feel like the sender thinks I am an online sex hawker,” she says.

According to Ken Munyua, a psychologist based in Nairobi, there are men who send images of their private parts to women as bait. They assume that women who accept their friend requests on Facebook would like to sleep with them and as a result, they send nudes or even pornographic content. 

“By nature, men are wired to drool over women and are more likely to seek out and tolerate nudes, but this natural instinct is controlled by emotional maturity. A man who isn’t mature enough is the one more likely to fill your inbox with both solicited and unsolicited photos of his private parts,” he says.

Another reason this happens is the virtual wall that exists between the sender and the receiver online. 

“Because they can hide their identity and real contacts, such men feel more empowered to say and do things they would otherwise have kept quiet about,” says Dr Chris Hart, a psychologist and the author of Single & Searching.