It was meant to be just another day for four plane spotters in transit through Kenya who decided to stop at Wilson Airport, Nairobi, last week to exercise their hobby.
What followed was arrest of Britons Ian Glover, 46, Steve Gibson, 60, and Eddie Swift and Paul Abbott, both 47, and a diplomatic nightmare for the British High Commission as it tried to secure their release.
As this was happening, Western - especially British media - were abuzz with stories on why the four should not have been detained and forced to confess, and how Kenya risked driving away tourists through such arrests for “simply just” taking photographs.
While the four were eventually presented in court on Monday and ordered to pay Sh200,000 for taking photographs without the permission of the Wilson Airport management, many Kenyans are continuously risking jail for doing what has, in recent years, become a nationwide obsession – taking photos.
The police, however, maintain that while everyone has a right to take pictures when they want, that right is limited to certain locations and does not extend to all parts of Kenya.
“It really remains just that,” Police Inspector-General Joseph Boinnet told the Sunday Nation. “‘No photography in prohibited areas’ means photography is not allowed; and there are clear reasons for that. You simply cannot take photographs in such areas. You do that, you get arrested and charged,” he said.
But with the rise of social media and easy availability of smartphones, cameras and real-time platforms of self-expression have been placed in the hands of almost every Kenyan. This has turned photography, especially selfies, into a national hobby.
SOCIAL MEDIA USAGE
With an impressive 88 per cent mobile penetration, according to the latest statistics from the Communications Authority (CA), and an estimated four million Facebook users and one million Twitter users, Kenya is second only to South Africa in social media usage in Africa.
With this rise, the majority of Kenyans are just a selfie away from jail and they don’t know it. First-time flyers, for instance, have a habit of taking their photos just before boarding. While this could appear harmless, legal experts warn that they could be breaking the law.
“The Official Secrets Act outlaws photo taking in prohibited areas like government buildings, military establishments, anywhere where there is a government armoury or any place gazetted as so by the Cabinet Secretary for Defence,” says Mr Charles Mwalimu, a criminal lawyer.
“While I don’t agree with the circumstances that led to the arrest of the four Britons, the prosecutor can still argue that Wilson Airport, owing to the fact that it hosts the Police Air Wing, could be described as a protected area,” he said.
The law not only prohibits people from accessing protected areas without permission but also makes it illegal to make sketches, obtain records or transmit information about the said areas.
A number of tour firms, aware of this law, have listed places on their websites where photography is prohibited in Kenya.
Such areas include army barracks, weapons factories, government mines, government camps, State House and its Lodges, signal stations, military ships, foreign embassies, consulates and, according to Mr Mwalimu, any place occupied by the government for national security matters.
“If found guilty, the punishment depends on the threshold,” says the lawyer, “but it shall not exceed 14 years.”
Two weeks ago, Nakuru-based blogger and Egerton University fourth year student Ezer Kipkurui was arrested while taking photographs at the local Huduma Centre.
Fellow bloggers rallied for his release on Twitter through the hashtag #ReleaseEzerKipkurui, including State House Director of Digital Communication, Mr Dennis Itumbi, who tweeted: “Yes, the facts of the matter are that he should be set free.”
On being released without charges a day later, the blogger on March 8 tweeted: “Accusations against me were ridiculous! Changing from resisting arrest and photography to causing disturbance.”
Mr Mwalimu argues that although the blogger was released probably because Huduma Centres are not gazetted protected areas, the police can still charge you if the owner of a premise feels offended by you taking pictures.
“If it is a private building and the owner feels offended, he can report you for creating nuisance but he cannot get you arrested,” he says.
A number of premises, including public buildings, have in recent months placed “No Photography” posters due to increased insecurity incidents and terror threats.
The Westgate Mall in Nairobi, which reopened last June after being hit by terrorists in 2013, does not allow shoppers to take pictures.
The mall’s property manager declined to speak to the Sunday Nation about their reasons for this policy, but two Nation journalists were last September accosted by the mall’s security detail and told to delete photos they had taken.
The two were threatened with lawsuits if they published the pictures.