SMS as Information Channel in Post-Election Kenya

Posted by CorinneRamey on Jan 21, 2008

Post-election violence has exploded in Kenya in the wake of the December 27 presidential elections. Ethnic killings -- which today's New York Times suggests may have been carefully planned -- have increased, and estimates of the death toll range from 650 to over 1000. In the midst of this, people both in and outside the country are using mobile phones in innovative ways to communicate political knowledge and circumvent the media blackout.

In the days after the election, the Kenyan government banned all live radio and television broadcasts and warned Kenyans about circulating news via SMS. “The ministry of Internal Security urges you to desist from sending or forwarding any SMS that may cause public unrest. This may lead to your prosecution," read an SMS message that Global Voices editor Afromusings received via Kenyan operator Safaricom. However, SMS has still been widely used to exchange news, and according to Reporters Without Borders, "news was now circulating mainly by means of SMS messages."

Independent media organization Kenya IndyMedia has been interviewing people via mobile phone, for example. The organization sends airtime via mobile banking service M-PESA, which the interview subject then uses to call an IndyMedia reporter. The interviews -- many of which are personal stories of the way that individuals' lives have been affected by the violence -- are posted on the website. As Nancy Scola wrote on WorldChanging:

In partnership with an Illinois IndyMedia branch, Kenya IndyMedia solicits contributions of either cash or airtime minutes from not only within East Africa but from around the globe. Text messages with sufficient minutes attached are sent out to potential interview subjects, who then ring up one of IndyMedia's reporters. With the interview recorded, either John or a fellow activist then trudges over to one of Nairobi's cyber cafes. Paying about $1 an hour for Internet access, they're interviews are posting posted online for all the world to hear. Some of these SMS-enabled recordings have appeared on the Kenya IndyMedia website. Others are now airing on international radio.

A website called -- Ushahidi means "witness" or "testimony" in Swahili -- allows people to report post-election violence in Kenya via SMS or email. The information then appears on a Google mash-up on the website and is verified and utilized by NGOs. A report from January 20 reads,

mobile telephone with relatives in this area have informed us that they slept outside for the last two days and tonight various houses are being burnt by men with arrows. the police are not able to help because they move in large numbers as large as 30men who vandalise and steal livestock and burn houses. security is not provided because it appears that the police are overwhelmed by the incidents

According to, Safaricom and Celtel customers can SMS their report to short code 6007. Normal text messaging fees apply.

Other blogs and online forums, such as Mashada, have been accepting SMS comments about the post-election crisis. However, as Joshua Goldstein points out, the majority of Kenyans don't have Internet access to view the comments submitted via SMS. "While these innovative SMS tools are allowing more people to contribute opinions and information, none of them can directly reach the majority of Kenyans, who need Internet access to see the posted messages," he writes. Twitter provides an alternative, as no Internet access is needed to view responses. Twitter channels like KenyaNews and afromusings provide frequent news updates and reflections from Kenya for people in the US and UK.

If you hear of other news channels utilizing SMS and mobile phones, please leave a comment!

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><p><br> <b><i><blockquote>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options