‘Civil society needs a compelling counter-narrative’

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Lynnette Micheni from PAWA254, an organisation that fosters social accountability and active citizenship among young people, mainly through arts and media.

1.Your organisation, PAWA254, defines itself as a movement of young, socially conscious artists and activists. How do you connect art and activism in your work?

We use art, pop culture and media as an empowerment tool. We believe in artistic expression as a means for social change and the deepening of democracy, and we harness it to advocate for the rights and responsibilities of Kenyans, and against social and political vices, including corruption and abuse of power. As a result of our work, we have seen ‘artivists’ multiply, and a movement of active, freethinking youth emerge in our country.

We work with a variety of arts and media, including photography, film, spoken word, poetry graffiti, cartoons, blogging and writivism, which has opened such great spaces for accountability in Kenya.

Our programs are two pronged: some focus on the economic development of emerging creatives and activists and others on social accountability, all the while leveraging the arts, pop culture and media.

The former entails developing the capacity of emerging artists and facilitating the integration of artistic expression for livelihoods development through the provision of a state-of-the-art co- working space consisting of creative suites, professional equipment, skills transfer and networking opportunities. PAWA convenes key annual events such as the PAWA Festival, an annual street festival that showcases East Africa’s visual and performing arts and disseminates the Kenya Photography Awards.

Our social accountability programs entail using art and pop culture as a form of civic engagement through dance, poetry, graffiti, theatre, music, film and photography to spark civic participation by focusing attention on emerging social concerns in the country and to prompt action in the process. Key current interventions include Off-The-Record, a weekly space where participants can express their thoughts on issues affecting society strictly off the record, with no fear of censorship or repercussions; #JengaHustle, an initiative aimed at advancing policies regarding employment and decent jobs for youth; #EmergingVoices, an intergenerational leadership development project aimed at empowering emerging social justice organisers and #ARealManIs, a transformative masculinity project aimed at leveraging media in mobilising young men’s fight against gender-based violence.

2. Does artivism, and activism in general, face any challenges in Kenya?

Indeed. Civil society is currently fighting a battle for its legitimacy, and it’s not winning. From every podium, including national television, the government is pushing a narrative discrediting civil society. Last year, two prominent human rights civil society organisations (CSOs) were shut down over their alleged non-compliance with regulations, including tax and employment laws, and for operating without a licence. There have been attempts to de-register other organisations as well.

The prevailing narrative is that activists and CSOs are donor-funded disrupters. The idea is also being disseminated that people do it for the money. If you mobilise, you are asked: ‘how much have you been paid?’ – like there is no other driver than money. Ideas or visions of change don’t count. They will say that critical civil society activists and organisations are ‘Soros people’ - implying they are being funded by the Open Society Foundations and are therefore puppets of foreign interests. It is very difficult to counter this narrative when it is constantly being propagated on national television.

It is also a challenge that there is a growing apathy amongst young people who are very well aware of their constitutional rights, resulting in an overreliance on individual activists.

3. What is being done in response to this?

What needs to be done is put together and disseminate a compelling counter-narrative. We know this is difficult because the problem has deep roots. So, the first thing we need to do is understand why it is so easy for governments to target civil society, in Kenya and elsewhere.

We first heard about ‘fake news’ a couple of years ago, and it was all happening far away, in the USA. But the trend has progressed very fast, and in the context of presidential elections last year we suffered an epidemic of fake news. It was all over social media, which is a major source of information for Kenyan citizens, and it distorted the political conversation, and maybe the outcomes of the elections as well. Young people, the group that most uses social media, were particularly misled by fake news stories aimed at stirring conflict and dividing civil society.

The abundance of fake news can be very disconcerting for young people that have little experience with interpreting data and are ill-equipped to tell the difference between legitimate and fake information. How do you sustain online movements while avoiding the infiltration of narratives based on fake news? How do you manage to bring online movements offline and keep them going in a context in which the political discussion is distorted to such extent?

Young people are also particularly vulnerable to empty electoral promises of jobs and other benefits. Lots of promises are made at election times but no policies are ever enacted to fulfil them afterward. And people keep believing every time. The problem is that we have a whole generation of people who form their opinions based on headlines, and also build their activism on the basis of headlines – and under the headlines, there is usually no real content.

The government is aware that evidence-based activism is lacking, and they do have smart and better prepared people, so they sometimes invite civil society to the table and pair them with a government technician, even on live television. Civil society activists are not always in a position to prepare adequately to respond. So it is difficult to connect and sustain civil society struggles, and instead it is so easy for the government to co-opt civil society actors.

This is why we work to empower people, and young people in particular, to seek facts, to interpret them and understand their implications, to make decisions based on them, and to use them to monitor the government, hold it accountable and ensure it responds to citizens’ needs. We believe that arts, pop culture and media remain a viable tool to engage with the youth and are keen to continue investing in them.

Civic space in Kenya is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with PAWA254 through its website or Facebook page, or follow @Pawa254 and @LynnetteMicheni on Twitter.

 

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