By Ezekiel Mutua
Not too long ago, I had the privilege of being invited to the launch by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) of its *Guidelines for Monitoring Hate Speech in the Electronic Media in Kenya.*
For me, this was a landmark event in the history of Kenyan journalism.
Astonishingly, it was soon followed by the strangest noises emanating from the media houses.
The Media Owners Association (MOA) was suddenly full of special pleading and prefabricated evasion, firing missiles from every direction, including a letter to my Permanent Secretary, Dr Bitange Ndemo, demanding an explanation for the very existence of the guidelines.
Among other things, the MOA complained that the guidelines were something of an ambush, that the sector had not been consulted about them. They created the impression that the guidelines were not in sync with the new Constitution and the New Kenya. And then they trotted out the usual bogey; fear of being gagged or being banned.
I was personally surprised as I know for a fact that it is not possible right now to gag Kenya’s media even if one so wished. Indeed, such a gag wouldn’t come from the NCIC and certainly not from my office.
In fact, the very first complete sentence in the 15-page guidelines reads:
“These guidelines, *developed in consultation with members of the Fourth Estate *[my emphasis], offer a reference point to presenters, editors and all persons working in the media when assessing for and guarding against hate speech perpetration in their work”.
Upon inquiring at the NCIC, I soon discovered that the media houses had indeed been extensively consulted in the guidelines process, and consulted where it really mattered — the practitioners’ level, not the boardroom level.
The guidelines are a journalist’s practical field manual, not a media owner’s or manager’s charter. And, outside the Constitution proper, they constitute one of the most democratic freedom-enhancing and safe-guarding documents in this country.
Yes, the guidelines strongly recommend the blacking out by media of politicians who peddle hate speech. But for anyone to pretend not to know why this should and must indeed be so is to exercise selective memory. The reason the NCIC guidelines have been issued is to prevent another build-up of national ill will in the run up to the next general election campaign such as preceded the 2007 polls, culminating in murder and mayhem.
The post-election violence (PEV) of 2007-08 was a long time coming, for the multiparty era in Kenya has been punctuated by pre-election violence since its restoration in November, 1991. A key ingredient of political violence is hate speech.
Media reporting and commentary on hate speech often result in disseminating the poison far and wide, stoking violent mindsets and planting the seeds of genocide. The idea that the broad public is composed entirely of adults of sound mind and discretion who are perfectly capable of sifting hate speech from rational political discourse is a terribly naive myth. As in all other human transactions, the national political discourse, right down to its local and grassroots levels, has to be monitored, mediated and regulated, and this includes multimedia journalistic treatments of the same.
The next general election is now hardly two years away, and it is a presidential transition poll, only the second one in our electioneering history, for the incumbent will not be in the running. If violence breaks out prior to, during or after the 11th General Election, all the hard work since the PEV, including the very hard work of repairing Kenya’s image abroad of the last several years, will have been in vain.
In the election triggered violence, this country missed becoming a failed state through ethnic hatred by a whisker.
Such a national tragedy cannot possibly be given a second chance because it threatens lives and property and national well-being. Hate-speech-driven political violence is a crime against both humanity and the economy.
Indeed, if it takes media blackouts imposed on hate-speech politicians and others to prevent a return to violence, so be it — this is a very small price to pay to preserve the peace and Kenya’s democracy credentials.
What’s more, the NCIC guidelines against hate speech are eminently sensible and benchmarked against best-practice in most mature democracies.
I recommend them strongly as both newsroom and boardroom essential reading and commend them, too, to the civil society sector. As the guidelines’
prefatory remarks note, the Kenya Media Act, the Communications Amendment Act (2009) and the National Cohesion and Integration Act recognize the fact that the media has the role of guarding against the perpetration of hate speech.
The preface goes on: “The important role that the media plays in promoting the right to information must be jealously guarded, particularly if Kenya is to remain a practising democracy”.
The commissioners are refreshingly candid about the huge task they faced in implementing the mandate and provisions of the NCIC Act, observing at one point that the challenges arose for lack of proper definition of the parameters through which hate speech operates and of proper guidelines on identification of hate speech for media.
The guidelines therefore streamline classification of speech and information that may qualify as hate speech and therefore liable to exclusion from the freedom-of-speech principle. To this end, the guidelines constitute a well-structured, effective and detailed system guarding against hate speech, the engine of hate crimes, all the way to the mega death events known as genocides.
This is why we must all support the NCIC’s proposal to give a blackout to fire-spitting politicians who incite their communities against others for political expediency.
*The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya email:emutua @information.go.ke*