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Kenya Cracks Down on Hate Speech Before Elections

  • Roopa Gogineni

Audio executive Joshua Arap Sang named in an International Criminal Court (ICC) list of suspects, addresses a news conference in Nairobi in this December 16, 2010 file photo.

Audio executive Joshua Arap Sang named in an International Criminal Court (ICC) list of suspects, addresses a news conference in Nairobi in this December 16, 2010 file photo.

During the 2007/2008 post-election crisis and violence in Kenya, hate speech on native language radio stations and online fanned ethnic tensions. This time around, the government is heavily monitoring the media and is threatening prosecution.

With little more than a week remaining until Kenya’s presidential elections, media monitors watch closely for language that could once again incite violence. With a society wracked by ethnic divisions, the line between ordinary political dialogue and potentially inflammatory rhetoric is blurry.

Lessons from the last election loom.

Joshua Arap Sang, a Kalenjin language radio broadcaster, currently awaits trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Sang is accused of committing crimes against humanity by “explicitly revealing a desire to expel the Kikuyus,” according to an ICC report.

David Mwangi, a cab driver in Nairobi, listens to Kikuyu language radio stations.

“Now they are very scared of ICC," he said.

He says the broadcasts are outwardly calling for a peaceful election, but are still subtly charged.

"They say it indirectly, not directly. The people who hear the language understand what is going on. So it is indirect, with proverbs. It is very hidden and secret," he said.

In the aftermath of the last election, Kenya criminalized the use of hate speech and set up the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) to monitor and investigate alleged cases.

Assistant Director Kyalo Mwengi and his colleagues have confirmed several complaints filed against native language radio stations.

"These are messages that contain insulting, threatening and abusive utterances that are likely to incite ethnic animosity,” he said.

He believes monitoring has had a deterrent effect but that the tendency of Kenyan politicians to exploit the media remains - they own most of the country's radio stations.

"During the day they are very good, but most of the complaints that have been reported to the commission are broadcasts that have been done after ten o’clock at night," he said. "It is an hour where most of the people are home. A majority of the people who listen to the vernacular stations are farmers or workers in factories who get home a bit late."

The NCIC has also established a department headed by a cybercrime expert to scan social media for incendiary language. Dozens of offenders have been identified on Facebook, Twitter, and on blogs. At least two have been referred to the director of public prosecution and may face jail time.

The online space is watched by non-governmental groups as well.

“We still haven’t been able to say that this incidence of violence is directly related to this speech that happened - you can’t make that kind of causal relationship. What we say is that dangerous speech has a high potential to catalyze violence," said Angela Crandall, who works with Umati, an arm of the Uchaguzi election-monitoring project.

Crandall says that analyzing this speech can serve as an early warning system. Umati recently published a report on the trending topics, phrases, and sentiments it found online in seven different Kenyan languages.

"We are worried... on March 5th, or whenever the results come out we don’t want to look back, and say we were sitting on all of this information and didn’t do anything," she said.

Umati and Uchaguzi forward information that they believe requires action to government partners.