Careful, don’t radicalise Muslims

Over a week ago, Kenyan authorities deported Jamaican-born Muslim cleric Abu Ameenah Bilal Phillips, invariably demonised by the media as a “radical”. The Qatar-based preacher was scheduled to meet Muslim leaders and address an education conference in Nairobi. He was ordered back on arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Dr Bilal was deported because the government considers him a security threat to the country. But Muslim leaders, including politicians from the Coast, protested the expulsion.

“It is shocking that someone of Dr Bilal’s calibre, the uncontroversial preacher respected worldwide, can be treated in the manner he was treated on Wednesday bearing in mind that he once visited Kenya in 2009 and his sermons were of great benefit in fostering good understanding and forging closer relations between Muslims and non-Muslims”, the Muslim Human Rights Forum said.

Interestingly, Dr Bilal went on to address Muslims in Nairobi over Skype. The power of communications technology!

“I advised against any violent demonstrations which may cost the loss of lives over this minor issue,” he was quoted in international media as saying. “I further advised the Muslim community to take the necessary steps to combat ‘Islamophobia’.”

“I also reminded the community that malpractices and unwarranted violence on the part of Muslims have also contributed to the global stigmatisation of Muslims and Islam. Thus, proper knowledge of authentic Islamic teachings is necessary to combat these deviations and to put Muslims back in a position to contribute positively to the world community.”

That doesn’t sound like the tongue of a “radical” Muslim preacher, or does it?

Well, what exactly is the truth surrounding this man’s expulsion from Kenya? Whose story do we believe about the deportation of Dr Bilal: the government’s or Muslim leaders’?

A neutral, alert watchdog should have tried to tell Kenyans who Dr Bilal really is and whether his deportation was justified. What did the government have against him? That watchdog is, of course, the media.

Dr Bilal has been denied entry into some Western countries. Was it on that basis that Kenya acted against him, or did the authorities have more concrete reasons touching on national security? If the latter, have the local Muslim leaders who Dr Bilal is in touch with been questioned by the security forces? Why didn’t the government stop the speech Bilal delivered via Skype if the man’s preaching could indeed endanger our security?

But, unfortunately, the Fourth Estate, other than merely reporting the deportation of the “radical” Muslim preacher, largely ignored the bigger story. Now Kenyans don’t know whom to believe between the government and Muslim leaders.

But The Bulletin suspects that most Muslims do not have this difficulty. They are likely to have accepted their leaders’ interpretation of the whole saga: that there were no good enough security grounds to deport Dr Bilal.

What would stop Muslims from thinking that they are being persecuted by the state because of their religious beliefs? Who would blame them for seeing this as yet another instance of official Islamophobia? Would they be wrong to conclude that even the media has aligned itself to the state against Muslims?

Can anyone imagine a situation where a visiting foreign Christian cleric is deported and the media gives the saga scant attention? The matter would most likely receive saturation coverage.

Let’s admit it, press conferences called all over the place by the men and women of God prophesying fire and brimstone on Kenya would get maximum exposure. There would even be live TV coverage of processions of Christians cursing the government. Public prayers would be held around the country in support of the cleric.

But not when it is about a Muslim preacher. Or even a Muslim human rights activist like Al Amin Kimathi who spent a year in a Ugandan prison over allegations of involvement in terrorism, only to be released without charge!

The reason for this indifference is simple. Ever since the West launched its global war on terrorism, Islam has more or less been conflated with terror – even in the media. The most glaring violations of the basic freedoms of Muslims can always be justified on grounds of national security.

As a matter of fact, it is the primary duty of the government to guarantee the security and peace of its people. The state does not do this out of goodwill. Citizens pay for security as a common good.

And as we well know, terrorist activities have mostly been perpetrated by certain extremists invoking the name of Islam. But great care must be taken not to stigmatise a world religion and not to profile and persecute its believers in the name of national security.

The war on terrorism cannot be won without involving Muslims. But how does the state hope to secure the goodwill and active collaboration of the majority of peaceful Muslims when it is perceived to be unfairly targeting the whole faith group already?

A case like that of Dr Bilal, if not handled sensitively, could easily worsen the sense of grievance among Muslims and stoke radicalism. Remember that every religion has both moderate and extremist segments among its believers.

The media does not help matters by giving fleeting attention to the concerns of Muslims, or by seeming unconcerned in the face of apparent violation of basic rights of Muslims.

By far the best news coverage of Muslim issues in the Kenyan media is found in the Star newspaper – in-depth reporting and analysis are, of course, lacking across the board. But most reports in the Coast section of the Star are about Muslims. Yet Muslims elsewhere in the country outside the Coast do and say important things that deserve media attention.

We run a real risk of worsening the feeling of exclusion and persecution among Muslims in Kenya. A ‘persecution complex’ is what partly feeds religious extremism. It is very dangerous.


Interrogating ‘development’

About a month ago, the Star newspaper carried a short news report about plans by the Catholic Church to build a huge, multi-million-shilling water project in Meru County. The dam will supply thousands of households and institutions with water for domestic and other uses. The church is already fundraising locally and abroad to finance the project, the Star reported.

A church official or two offered justifications for the project. We hoped the Star would ask their writer to do a comprehensive and analytical report on the proposed project. We are still waiting.

What will the project entail in terms of local resources? Whose land will be used? Who is expected to benefit and how? What will be the environmental and livelihoods implications of the project for the people living around it? And so on.

Those are important questions. We in the media need to understand that mega-projects put up by governments or other actors in the name of ‘development’ are rarely without serious consequences for people living in those areas. It is now an established fact that not every ‘development’ project actually brings development. Ultimately, development is about people, not impressive projects.

There is plenty of development literature about projects particularly in the ‘third world’ that have been harmful to the local people, especially the poor. We will cite just one example.

The Ethiopian government, which last week you heard will be exporting electricity to Kenya, is building what will become the biggest dam in Africa on River Omo. The Omo flows for nearly 1000km and drops 1,600m from its source to its end point in Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, which lies wholly within Kenya.

The Omo basin has great hydropower potential and already Ethiopia has built two dams on it. The third dam, called Gibe III (Gibe is the other name for River Omo), will be 240m high, the tallest in Africa. It will cost Ethiopia $1.7 billion.

Gibe III will double Ethiopia’s current generating capacity, which will then greatly exceed domestic demand. It is planned that up to 50 percent of the electricity generated will be exported to neighbouring countries, including Kenya. Two more hydropower dams will eventually complete the Omo ‘cascade’.

But that is the end of the nice part. Studies have shown that Gibe III will have a massive devastating impact on the downstream population by regulating the highly seasonal flow of the Omo, thereby ending the annual flood. This will directly affect all residents of the Omo flood plain and delta – around 100,000 people – who depend on the flood for their agricultural and pastoralist activities.

Once the dam is completed, there will be no annual flood. It will now be possible to develop large-scale commercial irrigation schemes, which are planned to occupy over 200,000 hectares of the Lower Omo. That will mean displacing many of the people from their existing farmland and grazing areas.

Since the Omo supplies 90 per cent of the water entering Lake Turkana, irrigation on this scale will significantly reduce the level of the lake and increase its salinity. This in turn will adversely affect the livelihoods of another 300,000 or so people who live in northern Kenya and who depend on the lake for pastoralism and fishing.

Who then will be the beneficiaries of this ‘development’ project? The people with big money, of course (industrialists, commercial farmers, etc) – at the expense of hundreds of thousands of local people in Ethiopia and Kenya.

And ‘development’ projects like Gibe III are often touted as poverty alleviation strategies!

If you think the local people will benefit from the sale of electricity and large-scale commercial agriculture, then you probably know nothing about the curse of oil in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Or flower farming in Naivasha, Kenya.

Another mindboggling project in Africa was unveiled last week by Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir. The Sh2 trillion Lamu Port is billed as one of the most ambitious infrastructural feats ever undertaken in Africa.

“Lamu Port is a blessing to the region”, Nation declared in an editorial. The massive project is expected to contribute hugely to economic development of eastern Africa.

But mentioned only in passing in the excited media coverage of the project last week are concerns about the environment and compensation of local people who will lose their land and livelihoods. Local human rights groups and community-based organisations have protested against the project in vain, as the government has reiterated it will ensure fair play.

The Standard merely listed those concerns (a detailed report on these was surely needed!): “failure to conduct an environmental impact assessment and mitigation plan, lack of community participation and consultation, threats to traditional nature-based livelihoods and the failure to recognise local individual, community and public ownership of land.”

“At the same time, the Lamu County Council Planning Committee refused to approve the project, citing lack of information.”

Are these minor concerns? If the governments that are implementing this project don’t want to listen to the local people, who is this ‘development’ project meant for?

It is for big finance. Small people can be ignored. Kibaki said the project has the support of “Comesa, the East African Community, SADC, the African Development Bank, the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation.” They are the ones that matter most? What about the fears expressed by the local people?

And the media doesn’t seem to realise that there is a serious problem here. Has the media also become part of big finance? Has it become complicit in the fraudulent rhetoric of ‘development’?


Which Press Freedom Day?

The Standard Group last week marked the sixth anniversary of the evil attack on its premises by state sponsored mercenaries to silence it.

As fate would have it, this year’s anniversary fell in the same week with the burial of Mr. John Njoroge Michuki, the man who, as Internal Security Minister, ordered, justified, sanctioned, blessed, or at least should have known in advance about, what is arguably the worst attack on media freedom in Kenya.

As has become a tradition at SG, the Mombasa Road-based media house organised a day of reflection on the extremely important theme of media freedom.

That was laudable. The Bulletin joins SG in demanding that the government return all the equipment that its agents confiscated from the media house and explain to the people of Kenya who carried out the attack and why. It should also compensate SG for the losses suffered.

That would be justice. Government, contrary to the Michuki Doctrine, is not a snake. It is put together by the people and must be accountable to them. It has no other reason for being.

Back to the anniversary festivities. SG has, for lack of a better word, a peculiar way of doing things. On Friday, 2 March, The Standard ran an editorial titled, “Let’s water the tree of world Press freedom.”

“Friday is a birthday of sorts for members of the Fourth Estate. Termed World Press Freedom Day, it was established in 1991 by the United Nations General Assembly “to celebrate the fundamental principles of Press freedom, to evaluate Press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.”

And on and on it went… What was that editorial about? SG’s Press Freedom Day or the World Press Freedom Day? The latter is marked annually on May 3. And Standard editors know that.

“Many progressive nations have recognised Press freedom as fundamental human rights (sic) and on which all other freedoms can be safely anchored. Each year there is also a special theme for the day. This year the theme is New Voices: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies,” the editorial rumbled on.

Not a word about SG’s own anniversary! Did the paper want to appropriate World Press Freedom Day for its own interest, or did it genuinely confuse the two days?

A clarification is needed. The Standard must be accountable. It is the only way newspapers build their most important asset: credibility.

And then on Saturday, the paper carried a two-page spread about the anniversary. There were quotes and pictures of 14 SG journalists, yes 14, under the heading, “Threats to media and individual journalists from the mouths of the men and women who cover the world.”

Robert Wanyonyi, Esther Ingolo, Mohammed Ali, Kwamboka Oyaro, Katua Nzile, Lilian Aluanga….

They cover “the world” indeed.


Multi-media “patriotism” project

In a week when the spectre of ethnic violence reared its ugly head again in Muhoroni, the chairman of the National Integration and Cohesion Commission Dr Mzalendo Kibunjia made the astounding claim that national reconciliation is on course.

In an opinion piece in The Star, Dr Kibunjia said his commission has been successful in combating hate speech, as evidenced by the prosecution of three politicians, including an assistant minister, over alleged inflammatory remarks made during campaigns in the run-up to the referendum on the constitution in 2010.

The truth is that the case against MPs Wilfred Machage, Fred Kapondi and political activist Anne Nyagitha-Miller was thrown out of court on technical grounds. That case can hardly be cited as proof that Kibunjia and his people are hard at work.

In his piece, Dr Kibunjia never bothered to respond to widespread public concerns about the content of incendiary speeches delivered by politicians at the so-called prayer rallies. Or their opponents responding with similar venom.

Instead, Kibunjia announced yet another project on patriotism called ‘Kenya Kwanza Campaign’.

According to Kibunjia, the new initiative will be “a multi-media patriotism drive that seeks to promote national identity, patriotism and national values as outlined in the Constitution. All these efforts, and more, are aimed at making sure that Kenya never stares into the dark abyss it did in 2008 again.”

Good grief! How many more of these “patriotism” drives are we going to see? Months back, Mary Kamonye of Brand Kenya announced just such a campaign. We saw the deluge of “nitakuwepo” ads on TV and in the newspapers. What did the drive achieve?

People, we are losing money! Please, Dr Kibunjia, don’t talk about another “patriotism” project. Don’t. Just continue writing PR op-eds.


A lesson in composition

The KCSE results released last Wednesday showed that performance in English remains poor. A specialist in the subject interviewed by Nation attributed this to widespread use of that lazy linguistic mongrel called Sheng’ and the rise of social media, where no one attempts to use the standard form of any language.

A good example of bad English was in an editorial published by Nation on Saturday. Yes, Nation. The piece was titled, ‘Bad news in Aids fight.’ The editorial started thus:

“The revelation by the National Aids Control Council that more that Sh300 million meant for Aids programmes have been returned to the Treasury is quite disturbing.”

The problem with this sentence, as grammarians would point out, is number. Money, no matter how huge the amount, always takes the singular form of verbs. So, it is “Sh300 million…has been returned to the Treasury”, not “have”.

The same editorial had yet another example of poor language use: verbosity. “Instead of disbursing funds to many disparate units, they should be consolidated and channelled though a few but effective units that can deliver.”

There are many redundant words in that sentence. Economical use of words is a great discipline in writing. Why waste words? It wastes a reader’s time and compromises clarity.

That sentence should have been edited to read as follows: “Instead of disbursing funds to disparate units, they should be consolidated and channelled through a few effective ones.” Five words less. It can even be better edited.

And a Standard story (March 3, 2012, p.4) started: “Her face coiled in anger as she followed the news bulletin in a local television channel.” Anyone seen a “coiled” face?

So you can imagine the kind of compositions kids write!


Quote of the week

And “last but not least” here is something the media in Kenya really needs to chew on. The Bulletin and others have pointed this out a thousand times already, but it bears repeating until the media gatekeepers begin to hate themselves for it:

“The press – print and electronic – acts as if Kenya belongs to 10 political leaders. You can’t turn on the TV, radio or read a newspaper without hearing or seeing the same 10 politicians. These people suck up all the oxygen in the country thanks to the press. The press doesn’t seem to know that Kenya has 37 million people.

“The press should pay attention to new faces in politics. Why keep on building the same tribal chauvinists who have nothing new to offer?”

That was Distinguished Professor of Law Makau Mutua, a columnist in the Sunday Nation.

Anyone who wants to comment on the story?

Who wants to Harm Standard Political Writer?

Friday morning March 18 found The Standard senior political writer Juma Kwayera seated at his desk doing a story. He was busy interviewing a source by telephone when his mobile phone rang. The number looked vaguely familiar, but he ignored the call. After the interview, Kwayera called the number.

The man who picked it up spoke in Kiswahili. Who did Kwayera think he was, writing that sort of stuff in the Standard, the man demanded angrily. He informed Kwayera that he had been hired to kill him. The journalist asked the man’s name. He said ‘John’ and declined to give his other names.

The ‘hired killer’ went on with his rant. He knew how to find Kwayera and the journalist shouldn’t even bother reporting to the police because it won’t be any help, he offered. Could ‘John’ please say what story he or whoever hired him was aggrieved about, Kwayera asked. The man only continued his threats and then abruptly cut the line.

Although he says was not scared, Kwayera could not take the call lightly. “I am not afraid. Only the guilty are afraid. I have done nothing wrong,” he told ET. The same day the threatening call came he recorded a statement at Nairobi’s Central Police Station. The journalist says he had previously received calls from strange four-digit numbers which are not in use in any telephone network in Kenya, such as 0025, 0026 and 0028.

“Someone calls you but when you answer he doesn’t talk. And when you call back the same number it doesn’t go through,” Kwayera said. Another odd thing had happened on the night before he received the call from ‘John’. The journalist was on his way home at around 10 PM when an acquaintance in the security forces called him seeking to know how Kwayera’s son was doing in school. Kwayera had not spoken with the man for a while. It struck him as strange that he could call at that time of the night just to ask about his son.

In early February, Kwayera had written about frantic efforts by a section of the Grand Coalition Government to convince the African Union to back efforts to get UN Security Council to pass a resolution deferring the International Criminal Court process against six suspected masterminds of the post-election violence. The Standard on Sunday report revealed that the PNU wing of the Coalition had procured the expertise of foreign lobbyists who, among other things, helped produce a gory one-sided video on the chaos that engulfed Kenya in 2007/8.

The video, the Standard reported, showed “how the Kenya delegation led by President Kibaki, top Government mandarins, and PNU stalwarts channeled the blame to the Orange Democratic Movement and its leader Raila Odinga, now the Prime Minister. The PNU show then zeroes in on the International Criminal Court and it’s Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo for equal bashing. So gripping was the video clip that a 10-minute break was called after the presentation,”. PNU and its allies had also secured the support of some civil society activists who picketed outside the OAU Summit in Addis Ababa calling for deferral of the ICC investigation.

After the story ran, Kwayera says he received a text message from a presidential aide describing him as “master of mischief.” He brushed aside the SMS. “I didn’t take him seriously. I took it as normal. You write a story and some people praise you while others hate you.” But when he got the call from ‘John’, he began to think twice.

It brought to his mind other equally unsettling incidents in the past. In October 2008, Kwayera had just finished a story whose gist was that the former ruling party KANU was on its deathbed. He was heading home when he received an anonymous call about the story. The caller admonished him to write balanced stories that gave equal opportunity to both sides.

The shocking thing was that the story was not yet published. How someone outside the newsroom got to know about it mystified Kwayera. When he took up the matter with his superior, he was promised an investigation – which never took place.

Kwayera believes the threats are meant to intimidate him to refrain from writing politically sensitive stories. “It is intimidation, so that you stay away from certain stories,” he says. Implementation of the new Constitution, he points out, has caused some rich and powerful people sleepless nights as the country is moving towards more accountability and integrity in public life. Many of those who are likely to fall foul of the supreme law do not want the media spotlight turned on them.

Last December, another journalist recorded a statement with the police claiming he had received threats after writing a story about Mkadara MP Gideon Mbuvi alias Sonko. Deo Omondi, Associate Editor at Express Media Group which publishes The Sunday Express, said Sonko and his aides threatened him after the journalist wrote a story about the legislator’s 1998 prison break.

Poisoning the Masses

Why war on hate speech is hard to win.

The National Cohesion and Integration Commission says last year it received two to three complaints a day about hate speech. Police, on the other hand, say they get more alerts. Following the recent heightened political activity surrounding prosecution of six Kenyans at the International Criminal Court and mobilization for the 2012 elections, there have been calls on the NCIC to crack the whip on politicians bent on stirring up ethnic passions that could yet again plunge the country into chaos.

Others have even urged the media to shun highly charged rallies where the tongues of certain politicians drip with poison. Clearly, there is serious concern in Kenya today about hate speech.

This anxiety was vindicated on April 7 and 8, 2011, when the six Kenyans suspected of masterminding the 2007/8 post-election violence made their initial appearance at the ICC. Presiding Judge Ekatarina Trendafilova of Pre-Trial Chamber II told them that the court was aware that “there are movements towards retriggering the violence in Kenya by way of delivering dangerous speeches.”

She warned them that such speeches could be perceived as a breach of one of the conditions set out in their summonses to appear, which prohibits them to continue committing crimes within the court’s jurisdiction. “Accordingly, this might prompt the Chamber to replace the summonses to appear with warrants of arrest.”

Judge Trendafilova stated that she was issuing a general warning to all the suspects, but no one in Kenyan had any doubt about who the court had in mind. Weeks before the ‘Ocampo Six’ traveled to The Hague, two of the suspects, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and suspended Higher Education Minister MP William Ruto, had held rallies in parts of the country where they delivered fiery speeches especially targeting Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

They or their henchmen vilified the ICC as well, depicting it as a kangaroo court used by Odinga in an attempt to scuttle their presidential ambitions in the 2012 elections. The politicians also appeared to use the ICC issue to rally their ethnic blocs behind them.

In reaction to the speeches, the Internal Security Ministry and the NCIC cautioned Uhuru and Ruto and their allies against hate speech. NCIC chairman Dr Mzalendo Kibunjia accused the leaders of pursuing a “scorched earth policy” in their war of words with the PM. Odinga himself was not innocent. He had uttered some unsavory things about Uhuru and Ruto at political rallies, but later kept his cool.

Despite these worrisome exchanges no one was arraigned in court, even though hate speech is a crime in Kenya under the National Cohesion and Integration Act. The Constitution as well proscribes the vice. Indeed nobody has been convicted for hate speech even in the face of growing public apprehension about potentially harmful speeches.

A case against three politicians charged last year with the crime in the heat of the campaigns for the referendum on the Constitution was still in the courts at the time of writing this report.

The first hurdle in the war against hate speech is the lack of clarity about what constitutes the crime. Section 13 of the National Cohesion and Integration Act states as follows:

“A person who –

(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material;

(b) publishes or distributes written material;

(c) directs the public performance of a play;

(e) distributes, shows or plays a recording of visual images; or

(f) provides, produces or directs a programme;

which is threatening, abusive or insulting or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour commits an offence if such a person intends thereby to stir up ethnic hatred, or having regard to all the circumstances, ethnic hatred is likely to be stirred up.”

A person convicted under this section is liable to a fine of not more than Sh.1 million or to imprisonment to one year, or both.

Now, whereas Sec. 13 (3) defines ethnic hatred as “hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origins,” some important concepts under this law are undefined. What, for example, exactly constitutes abusive or insulting words or behaviour in each of Kenya’s languages? What are threatening words? How will the law deal with coded messages and innuendo in vernaculars that on the face of it sound quite harmless?

The fact that the courts have not issued any ruling on a case of hate speech compounds the difficulty of definitions. It is the job of the courts to interpret the law.

Political talk

NCIC commissioner Halakhe Waqo says the commission has faced lots of difficulties determining what hate speech is under the law, even though the commission is aware of the power of dangerous speech to stir up ethnic animosity.

“During electioneering seasons, the best politician is the one who delivers the worst statements,” Waqo says. “But our difficulty has been identifying what could cause ethnic hatred and what is merely targeted at individuals.”

It is not a frivolous point. When Uhuru Kenyatta was criticized for his speeches reported in the media, he came out to state that he was not guilty of hate speech. His words, he said, were targeted at Odinga and not the Luo community. That makes sense as far as the law on hate speech is concerned. Strictly speaking, Uhuru was not disparaging the Luos. But it is a useless argument in the Kenyan political context.

Ethnic groups have their unofficial political chieftains and Odinga is such a figure among the Luos, just like Kenyatta now is among the Kikuyus. It is inconceivable that an attack on Odinga (or any other ethnic chieftain for that matter) by an ‘outsider’ would be seen by the rest of the community as a personal matter best left to him. It would be considered an affront to the entire community.

In the book, ‘Ethnic Conflicts in Africa: A Comparative Analysis’ (CODESRIA, 1998), Nigerian scholar Okwudiba Nnoli writes that, because ethnicity defines for the individual the totality of his existence, including embodying his hopes, fears and sense of the future, “a poor villager believes that a cabinet minister from his village represents his own share of the national cake, even though he may never receive any personal reward as a result of the appointment.”

It therefore follows that a vicious verbal attack on a prominent politician would most certainly be seen as an attack on the community he or she comes. It is for the same reason that a Kenyan politician facing, say, corruption charges would claim that his community is being targeted by their enemies.

So, whereas in the eyes of the law Kenyatta’s fiery exchanges with Odinga would likely be seen as a personal matter between the two, in reality the speeches help (and indeed have helped) shape the feelings of the Kikuyus and the Luos about each other.

The use of certain vernacular words is particularly problematic, as they are generally ethnic stereotypes. ‘Kihi’ in Kikuyu means an uncircumcised lad, but could be, and often is, used as an insult. But the word can also mean immature. Used in reference to a Luo leader (the community traditionally doesn’t circumcise boys) the term is quite offensive.

Linus Kaikai, the Managing Editor Nation Media Group Broadcasting Division, suggests that the law should have delineated the criminal ethnic stereotypes and banned them. “When you speak of circumcision as a stereotype, does the law cater for it?” he poses.

NMG, he says, has a policy against airing inflammatory language even when the words are directed not at communities but at an individual. Maybe if the hate speech law had an index of inflammatory words, the media would help fight the vice by editing them out.

But in reality, how easy is it drawing up a list of offensive words, when apparently innocuous words and phrases could be turned around by cunning speakers to convey very offensive ideas? Ethnic stereotypes are stored in a community’s collective mind. New words can always be coined, or existing words reassigned new meanings, to express the intended stereotype.

Frowning on lies

Perhaps this cultural complexity and the lack of clarity in the hate speech law is the reason why the Kibunjia Commission doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on hauling suspected hate mongers to court. Rather, the Commission has been issuing them with warnings about their utterances. “The level of achievement should not be judged on how many people have gone to jail but on how much we have controlled,” says Waqo. Warnings apparently force the politicians to tone down their rhetoric – at least for a time.

Caesar Handa, a communications researcher with Strategic Research supports this approach. Trying to prevail upon politicians to change their tactics in political mobilization would be better than prosecuting them for dangerous speech. “The issue is how as a nation we can create a culture that frowns at lies and offensive language,” Handa says.

But the Police are of the view that hate speech is rampant and proper law enforcement would effectively deal with the problem. “Going by the reports we receive daily, there is much more hate speech than what the NCIC receives, but there is no clarity about what the Police should do,” says Police Spokesman Eric Kiraithe. He suggests the law should empower a police officer at a rally to immediately arrest a speaker whom he thinks has violated the hate speech law.

Kiraithe also believes the media has worsened the problem by carrying inflammatory statements by politicians. A law should be enacted to stop the media from doing this. “It is outrightly pretentious to say that in Kenya the media can operate without a law”, he says, adding that “the concept of media freedom is seriously abused.” The Police Spokesman further says that, “There would be little impact of hate speech if it doesn’t pass through the media.”

Well, the media was accused of playing a role in fanning the post-election violence of 2007/8 by, among other things, uncritically carrying reports and political utterances which incited Kenyans. Certain vernacular radio stations were condemned as platforms for hate speech. Kaikai admits that this is still going on. “Once a politician is sure that what he says will go on TV he feels encouraged to use hate speech. We need to sensitize the media on hate speech so that it does not end up perpetuating it,” he says.

World attention

The concern in Kenya about hate speech comes at a time when there is increased global attention to the subject. There are international legal instruments against speech crime, including Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which proscribes advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred. And there was the international trial and conviction of Rwandan media persons accused of incitement to genocide. But hate speech per se is only being seriously discussed now.

“The whole question of hate speech is an issue that has not been sufficiently dealt with until now,” says the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Opinion and Expression Frank La Rue. “But all of a sudden it is becoming very relevant for various reasons: the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, the church minister in Florida, US, who wanted to burn a Koran, etc.”

La Rue believes the debate is important, but insists that care must be taken to ensure the fight against hate speech does not hurt freedom of expression. “Hate speech must be speech that immediately leads to discrimination, violence or some form of hostility,” he says. “You can have a negative opinion of someone, but that does not necessarily become hate speech.”

But that is not the way the issue is understood in Kenya. NCIC commissioner Waqo says nowadays people seem to think that any negative thing said about an opponent amounts to hate speech. The matter has also been politicized, with politicians accusing their rivals of hate speech and calling on the NCIC to investigate when, as a matter of fact, the law has not been flouted. And when the NCIC does not act, it is accused of ineptitude or bias.

Waqo says that many of the complaints the commission has received about hate speech are without merit. He gives the example of allegations made against the PM Odinga last year by PNU activist Moses Kuria and those made against Transport Minister Chirau Mwakere. The commission did not find any breach of the law.

American law professor Susan Benesch is researching hate speech under an 18-month project that covers Kenya, called ‘Dangerous speech on the road to genocide’. A senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in Washington, Prof. Benesch is a consultant to the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide.

She confirms that “inflammatory speech seems to be an ineluctable part of the social process that helps to bring about mass violence”, but cautions that “all forms of incitement can be confused with legitimate non-criminal speech, especially political speech, since the latter often features stereotyping and prejudice, falsehoods, generalization, and appeals to emotion and fear.”

To protect freedom of expression, it is therefore necessary to strictly define hate speech and other forms of dangerous speech. Prof. Benesch defines hate speech as “speech that attacks or disparages a group or a person for characteristics purportedly typical of the group.”

Audiences experience the harmful effects of hate speech in two ways: directly and indirectly. On one hand, a speaker may address a person or group that the speaker purports to describe (the victim group) in order to offend, frighten or humiliate that audience directly.

On the other hand, the speech may be directed at a different audience with the goal of causing that audience to share the views expressed or implied in the speech and to respond against the victim group with discrimination, hostility or violence. The dangerous speeches politicians make when addressing their own people fall in this category.

Identifying hate speech

Speaking in Nairobi recently, Prof. Benesch proposed a five-point method to establish the “dangerousness” of a speech:

1. The speaker: Did the speaker have authority or influence over the audience? If so, what kind? Influence need not derive from a formal political post. Cultural and religious figures and entertainers often even have more influence over an audience than political figures have.

2. The audience: Who was the principal audience for the speech or the audience most likely to react to it? Was the speech directed primarily at members of the group it purported to describe, that is, the victims, or at members of the speaker’s own group, or both? If the latter, the speech might bring indirect harm by inciting the audience.

It is also important to find out if the audience has the means or capacity to commit violence against the group targeted in the speech. If a group is unable to commit mass violence, incitement cannot succeed.

Was the audience fearful? This is particularly important for predicting an audience’s vulnerability to incitement. Did the audience have access to alternative views or sources of information?

3. Content of the speech: Was the speech understood by the audience as a call to violence? Did the speech describe the victim group as other than human? Did the speech assert that the audience faced serious danger from the victim group? Did the speech contain phrases, words or coded language that has taken on a special loaded meaning, in the understanding of the speaker and audience? Did the speech echo previous, similar messages?

4. Socio-historical context: Were there underlying conflicts between the assumed victim group and the main audience for incitement? Were there recent outbreaks of violence following other examples of hate speech? Was the audience suffering economic insecurity?

5. Mode of transmission: Was the speech transmitted in a way that would increase its force, e.g. via a media outlet with particular influence, or set to compelling music?

Perhaps Prof. Benesch’s analytical framework could help the Kibunjia Commission, law enforcement agencies and the courts to better identify hate speech and sanction its perpetrators, while protecting every citizen’s right to free speech as guaranteed by the Constitution.