BY EZEKIEL MUTUA
A conference in Nairobi last week addressed the significant question of how to promote “Effective and Accountable Partnerships” before and after the referendum.
Organised by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, Article 19 and the UNDP, the meeting addressed the lessons learnt from the way the media covered the 2005 national referendum and the General Election two years later.
But an even more fundamental objective was to map out the terrain for accountability between the media and the Agenda 4 commissions before, during and after the referendum to ensure a cohesive nation.
Renowned civil rights crusader Martin Luther King once said: “Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.”
Kenyans need to be reminded often that hate speech ultimately kills.
The terrain of hate speech, therefore, needs to be negotiated delicately, with great sensitivity and also great firmness. For this terrain is also the topography of fear, fury and emotionalism. The truth is always the first victim of hate speech whenever it sets in. Human lives are the next victim.
Hate speech is expressed through speaking, publishing and broadcasting. It is one of the darkest sides of communication.
Indeed, the phenomenon of hate speech took a most dramatic and precarious turn in the lead-up to the 2007 General Election and the post-election violence of early 2008. The role of the media immediately came under close scrutiny.
Many will recall the fact that at the height of the post-election violence, the Government introduced measures to curb hate speech on radio and TV. It temporarily banned real-time broadcasts of events and talk shows.
The media sector, hastily assuming that these were gag orders and that would be imposed for the long haul, blacked-out certain senior government officials. It was one of the darkest chapters in State-media relations in this country.
Hate speech is an extremely vexing subject, being mixed with issues of freedom of speech, expression, the press and association. The most evil and versatile practitioners of hate speech are adept at hiding behind these freedoms in order to portray any attempts – legal, moral, regulatory, philosophical, name it – at combating hate speech as an affront on democracy and the liberal virtues.
But the media must never tire in their efforts to expose hate speech for what it is and to deter its exponents, whatever their platform. The price of liberty is, indeed, eternal vigilance.
However, renowned scholar Jules Carlysle captures the moral paradox at the heart of counteractions against hate speech when she argues: “Censorship and hate speech laws don’t protect good ideas… they protect bad ones. They keep them alive and push them underground. If someone is engaging in hate speech, you don’t silence them. You don’t tell them to shut up …You say, ‘come over here and say that’, you say, ‘bring it on’…..”
This is, of course, the school of thought that proclaims – with the French writer and philosopher Voltaire – that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
It is all very well and democratic, until you encounter a catastrophic situation like the Rwanda Genocide. Would anyone in their sane mind have defended the right of Rwanda’s Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines to spew its brand of ethnic poison and incitement that led to the murder of 800,000 people in less than 100 days?
The role, attitude and disposition of the media in the coverage of conflict situations and electoral processes, including the refer¬endum, must remain focused on being a role of detached record or chronicle.
Journalists must conduct themselves at all times as if they are reporting for posterity. They must be objective, above the fray, addressing the “Five Ws and a H” – Who, What, When, Where, Why, How and With What Impact – without becoming partici¬pants or openly taking sides.
Yet, all too often in our media sector, the editorial chair, one of the most complex and sensitive command and strategy executives in the world, is occupied by one of two varieties of extremists – on the one hand, the ivory tower operative, and, on the other, the sort of operator who becomes a political player, a participant in the rough-and-tumble of the political process.
These extremes are what give the hate content its entry point into especially the mainstream mass media that reach millions of readers, viewers and listeners.
Editors must, therefore, keep an unblinking eye on respect for the opinions of others and against hate speech in all its hideous manifestations.
(Ezekiel Mutua is the Director of Information and Public Communications).