They are tech savvy, controversial, outspoken, fearless and mince no words in their quest to speak their mind.
Welcome to the world of young digital rebels whose principal weapon of war is cyberspace. While the authorities easily contained protests by hurling teargas in the 1990s, they now have a hard time controlling the new generation of digital activists. Be they blogs or microblogging sites like Twitter, their virtual platforms have attracted audiences even bigger than the number of votes some presidential candidates got in the last elections.
The Nairobian talked to some of the most controversial bloggers.
The journalist and ardent blogger has had several run-ins with the law. Prominent for breaking big news through social media, Itumbi is a big name online. His links to the political class, particularly the Jubilee Coalition, has attracted both criticism and admiration. However, he insists he is a creation of hard work, not political connection.
“Despite what many think, Itumbi is a simple Kenyan who was born and bred in Kirinyaga where he herded his grandfather’s cattle in his early years,” he says, adding that he first came to Nairobi in 2003.
It is in Kirinyaga, he says, where he adopted his “philosophy of a river” as his a principle.
“In its quest to reach its destination, the river does not negotiate with obstacles on its way,” the blogger explains. “It sweeps away shrubs, cuts through rocks, and meanders across tough terrain as it delivers waters into a lake or ocean”.
This perhaps explains why “River Itumbi” has had so many run-ins with the authorities in the quest to deliver his “information waters” from sources to the masses.
For example, last year he was arrested on accusations of hacking into the International Criminal Court (ICC) servers with intentions of exposing witnesses. It is something he denies.
“Whatever the ICC said was not true and that’s why they later pointed a finger at the Kenyan government,” says the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication graduate. He now plans to sue the State for unlawful detention and bringing his name to disrepute.
He was also summoned by the Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Foreign Affairs for allegedly authoring an infamous ‘ICC Dossier’— documents tabled in Parliament alleging a plot by the UK government to indict President Kibaki at The Hague upon retirement.
And in an ongoing case Itumbi has been charged with intercepting and publicising on his website private emails of JetLink airlines that questioned the safety of the company’s planes. JetLink no longer operates. But Itumbi remains reluctant when asked if he is a hacker.
“Hacking is a legal subject taught in some colleges and I am not trained in it,” Itumbi says. “But if hacking means access to the operations of a computer, then that one I know”.
And how does this flashy ‘social media journalist’, who lives in a leafy suburb and has a high-end Mercedes Benz make money?
“I am social media and media consultant, owner of a group of county newspapers and a correspondent for journalism.co.za, a South African online publication,” Itumbi says, pointing out that his engagements earn him more than Sh300,000 a month after-tax.
And that’s not all, he says: “I was the lead consultant for the youthful Jubilee team that engineered President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory. The team was behind the Jubilee manifesto and spearheaded the online campaign”.
Asked if he is Jubilee’s propagandist, the blogger says his interactions with politicians are purely on business terms and he works with people from different parties.
But despite being considered tech-savvy now, Itumbi says he opened his first email account in 2003 through the help of his friend Dennis Onsarigo, who is currently a top investigative reporter at KTN.
“I remember this evening. We had searched for a job all day with my friend Dennis Onsarigo and we only had 18 bob bus fare to South B,” he recalls. “Since we were to walk anyway, we got into a cyber and Onsarigo helped me to open a Yahoo! account”.
The bachelor, who calls retired Anglican Church Archbishop David Gitari grandfather, says his philosophy about marriage is radical.
“I have shown interest in someone and they have shown interest in me too,” he says. “But I am one of those people who believes marriage is not a must”.
He, however, says the biggest threat online is hate content. “The biggest challenge to institutions like National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) is their inability to investigate online content,” says Itumbi.
“Institutions like NCIC should buy tools like Radian6, which costs about Sh600,000. It is designed to track online content,” he says.
He is known for unleashing racy and piercing articles, especially touching on the mainstream media, on his infamous Jackalnews.com. And the self-declared “portrait of the ordinary person” is not sorry for being explosive.
“I strongly believe that I have insatiable curiosity, creativity and brilliance,” he says.
So who is Bosire?
“There are several rumours about me: Some say I was born in Guinea Bissau; that I am an evil, soulless, Machiavellian puppeteer, and an anti-social psychopath. It has also been said that I am planning to move away from the world and settle in Mars. At worst, some claim I am a toothless homosexual… But I laugh all the way to the bar. One day somebody called me and asked if I am fully human and I said I am more advanced than the ordinary humans.”
Bogonko denies he was unceremoniously fired from AFP, an international news agency, for misconduct, dismissing the accusations as lies “peddled by some haters” jealous of his fight for social justice through campaigning for unimpeded access to information.
“This is part of a long thread of rumours, innuendo and... (expletive deleted) that my enemies have been spreading in order to portray me as a rogue journalist,” says Bosire, who also describes himself as a competent Guinness drinker.
“My pride in life is to stand for those who are weak and, remind the government that it has an obligation to its people and journalists to remain faithful in their trade”.
Bogonko mocks prominent media personalities in both print and electronic media and accuses them of all manner of things.
“Unlike many mainstream journalists, I have all the respect for bloggers like Dennis Itumbi and somehow Robert Alai,” he says. “They are very good in making friendship with powerful people, but also in making powerful people run away,” says Bosire.
He, however, denies being part of the Jubilee Coalition’s propaganda machine. He accuses “dimwits” in The Nairobian of writing that a blogger (unnamed in the article but who Bosire claims to be him) was promised millions of shillings to do the dirty work of the UhuRuto team during the campaigns, but was never paid.
Bosire says he set up Jackal news to particularly publish stories that the mainstream media do not want told, including those about editors and reporters.
“We target anybody who is a public figure and to us, a public figure is anybody with a Facebook and Twitter account. Nobody is too strong or too hot for us to handle,” says Bosire.
Love him or hate him, one thing you can never do is to ignore him. Alai, an avid Twitter user, is also associated with www.techmtaa.com, which has put him at loggerheads with some corporates, politicians and political parties. The latest tussle involves Safaricom which has sued him for allegedly publishing defamatory articles against the company.
The feisty Alai is also involved in legal battles with Itumbi, former government spokesman (now Machakos Governor) Alfred Mutua and Secretary to the Cabinet Francis Kimemia. Most of these are related to his tweets that reach more than 55,000 followers.
By the time of going to press Alai had not responded to our questions, which he asked us to e-mail.
On Labour Day he shouted at Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli, who was making his speech at Uhuru Park and paid dearly for it under the rough hands of the police and the trade unionist’s supposed ‘army’.
But to Boniface Mwangi, this is no new territory. In 2009, he shouted down retired President Kibaki during Madaraka Day celebrations. The case is currently in court. And early this year he led a group of youth in burning 221 coffins outside Parliament to protest against the legislator’s failed attempt to enhance their retirement packages, including receiving State funerals.
His latest move, the Mavulture Campaign, where artists spray walls with creative graffiti depicting politicians as vultures scavenging on citizens, has landed him in police cells twice. The campaign also has an online version. Indeed Bonnie, as many refer to him, uses cyberspace to mobilise, but never fears to appear in person when expressing his displeasure.
“Sleeping in a police cell is not new to me since I have been arrested and detained many times,” Bonnie says, a former Standard Group photojournalist.
His activism was this year recognised by the Society of Emerging African Leaders (SEAL) that gave him an award for his exceptional work in Africa.
He is currently leading an online campaign dubbed ‘Occupy Parliament’, through which he intends to lead a procession to Parliament buildings in two weeks to protest against MPs’ salary increase demands.
“As a photo-activist, who is using visual art as a tool for social change, I am determined to awaken the people’s consciousness,” Bonnie says.