BY EZEKIEL MUTUA
The chickens are finally coming home to roost for hate mongers, stalkers, kidnappers and even hardcore jailbirds serving jail terms who operate mobile phone scams.
A massive nationwide registration of mobile phone numbers and owners that started last week with a deadline of July 30 is going to put to an end a wide range of malefactors who have ruthlessly exploited the relative obscurity and anonymity of mobile phones to bring untold fear, confusion and mental anguish to law-abiding citizens.
Also in trouble is the lucrative stolen mobile phone “market”, where state-of-the-art smart phones that cost their legitimate owners tens of thousands of shillings can go for a fraction of their cost.
The SIM card registration aims to safeguard the public against a spate of insecurity, including terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering, extortion, hate messages and incitement.
The move to enforce SIM card registration is part of the Government’s efforts to deal with the phenomenon of hate speech, hate media content and their direct connection to hate crimes.
For a long time now, the topography of hate SMS has been left almost entirely to the researching community and academic sector, whose highly specialised reports are only accessible and intelligible to trained professionals.
Many people have, therefore, not paid much attention to its contribution to the Post-Election Violence (PEV) in Kenya.
Instead, the best research work on hate SMS in the Kenyan PEV has been done by foreign academics.
Three landmark studies stand out in this respect – The Role of the Media in the Upcoming Somaliland Elections: Lessons from Kenya, by Nicole Stremlau, Matthew Blanchard, Yusuf Abdi Gabobe and Farhan Ali Ahmed, and Digital Technologies in Kenya’s Post Election Crisis, by Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich and Conflict Analysis of the 2007 Post-election Violence in Kenya, by Mara J. Roberts.
While many Kenyans will cringe at seeing the country’s problems being used as cautionary tales for ramshackle states such as Somaliland, the reality is that, that is how low we had stooped in our worst moment of madness.
And part of that way-down-low stooping had largely to do with sending, receipt and dissemination of hate SMS – Roberts reminds us that there is a horrific statistic that is often omitted when Kenyans recall that 1,350 died and 650,000 were displaced during the PEV -3,000 innocent women were raped.
The climate of fear created by hate SMS was palpable in Kenya in the mayhem of early 2008. That fear was like the one described by the British crime writer Edgar Wallace, in his The Clue of the Twisted Candle – “Fear is a tyrant and a despot, more terrible than the rack, more potent than the snake”.
In examining the Kenyan case, Stremlau and her team noted: “The use of SMS in election periods, often coupled with violent protests, has been an increasingly apparent global phenomenon, most recently seen in Iran in June 2009.
In Africa, Ethiopia’s 2005 elections are an example where the Government was highly sensitive to the use of text messaging in organising protests in support of the opposition”.
One of the most blood curdling and chilling hate SMS messages sent at the height of the violence urged recipients to identify, by name and location, all members of a certain community they personally knew here in the capital city and forward them to a certain mobile number (which was supplied with the message), so that they could be slaughtered and wiped out of Nairobi.
Another hate message, this time in the Rift Valley, accused one community of having stolen the future of another community’s children and, therefore, urged the aggrieved group to seize the day and expel the thieves of posterity.
Both hate messages (and many, many others) were incendiary incitements to murder and mayhem.
It was also soon after the Government imposed a ban on real-time TV and radio coverage of events and talk shows to prevent messages of incitement and hate spreading like wildfire.
Those were dark days and frightening moments in Kenya, when the atmosphere was thick with fear and loathing.
This was the first time in Kenya’s history that the population had a means of communication that rivalled police radio (with its coded Alpha Bravo Charlie language) in its sheer coverage and versatility.
The mayhem triggered by hate SMS, hate radio and hate print media content added to the exponential spread of violence much faster than there was police capacity to even keep up, let alone contain it.
Eventually, for the first time since the Mau Mau State of Emergency in the 1950s, the military was deployed against civilian disturbances.
But, to their abiding credit, the Kenyan authorities stopped just short of shutting down the SMS system. In neighbouring Ethiopia after a disputed Presidential election in 2005, the SMS system was shut for 18 months, plunging the nation back into pre-digital media times!
(The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications)