When reporting hate speech is promoting fear


A forthcoming conference in Nairobi has the extraordinary theme “Navigating the Terrain of Hate Speech, Freedom of Expression and Non-discrimination in Kenya”. It is sponsored by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and Article 19, the Global Campaign for Free Expression.

I have rarely looked forward to a conference as I am looking forward to this one and although I will not be able to attend and speak at the forum due to some pressing duties abroad, I am immensely delighted at the prospects of such a meeting. It addresses truly delicate matters that go to the very core of the all-important question, “Will political violence happen again in Kenya in the near future and will the media of mass communications be complicit in it?”

This crucial conference is organised under eight thematic areas, beginning with the role of the media and including freedom of expression and inciting utterances, and the parameters for policing. The role of politicians and other opinion leaders and shapers will also come under the discussants’ scrutiny.

The most succinct dictionary definition of the noun “Hate Speech” cuts straight to the chase: “Bigoted speech attacking or disparaging a social or ethnic group or a member of such a group”.

Few definitions can be as categorical as this one. So, why is it so hard for some media houses to spot the phenomenon, recognise it for the malignancy and threat to civilised society that it is, isolate it and only report or comment on it in the most circumspect manner, the way profanities are rendered in print in polite society?

The phrase “Expletive Deleted” first came to the media’s and public’s notice in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the White House Watergate Scandal tape recordings were transcribed. President Richard Nixon and his closest aides and associates were in the habit of using rather colourful language (like many other Americans), much of it peppered with four-letter words referring to sexual and excretory organs and their functions. 

The Watergate transcripts were therefore punctuated by the euphemism “Expletive Deleted”, much to the amusement of editorial cartoonists, stand-up comedians, the political sector and the general public. “I am going to Expletive Deleted you,” became a joke that caused much merriment at the time.

Horrendous reading
When it comes to hate speech, however, there is simply no funny side to the matter. Hate speech is the precursor of hate action and the herald of attempts at, or actual, genocide.

However, mid-last last week, a local newspaper carried a Page One story and an Editorial to the effect that leaders on one side of the forthcoming National Referendum on the Proposed New Constitution had threatened certain communities in the Rift Valley and Nyanza provinces with ethnic cleansing. The paper contrived to report an outrageous instance of hate speech in great detail and then editorialised on it in a manner that clearly succeeded in giving it a platform and disseminating its potentially poisonous message far and wide.

The report then proceeded to name the communities most likely to perform the evictions and those most likely to suffer from them. The story made for some horrendous and frightening reading.

The newspaper also pointed out that the hate speech mongers had invoked Section 67(e) of the Proposed Constitution as the basis for their dire warnings. It then quoted the Section, which says the National Land Commission will, “initiate investigations, on its own initiative or on complaint, into present or historical land injustices, and recommend appropriate redress”.

Pious posturing
And then came the clincher, which exposed the report for what it truly is, a megaphone for the hate-speech mongers. Adopting its most pious attitude and tone the paper declared, “The Section does not state that there will be ethnic cleansing”.

Where on Earth does there exist a constitution, whether enacted or prospective, that provides for ethnic cleansing?

The editorial also contained the same startling assumption — to the effect that ethnic cleansing is not codified in the Proposed New Constitution. How could it ever be? It is not an option. The matter does not even arise!

The net effect of the paper making this completely non sequitir (Latin for ‘it does not follow) “point” was purely an excuse to report the hate speech threats in full and to give it a public platform.

The newspaper\’s manufactured concern and illogical stance are themselves the height of journalistic irresponsibility and the last thing that Kenyans need during the National Referendum campaign. Reportage and comment on hate speech need to be handled much more sensitively, much more intelligently and much more proportionately than that classic case of how NOT to do it.

The newspaper\’s mishandling of a highly volatile subject is also precisely the sort of thing that the National Cohesion and Integration Commission is monitoring and commendably cracking down on. According to Commissioner Jane Kiano, an elder stateswoman of our civil society scene, speaking to the Press earlier this month in Kijiwetanga Village, Malindi, more than 20 people, among them clerics have been summoned by the Commission on hate speech-related inquiries related to the August 4 Referendum and 2012 General Election. The Commissioners were touring the area and collecting residents’ views.

Their names had also been sent to the Commissioner of Police for appropriate action, Mrs Kiano disclosed.

Among those summoned are the operators and editors of three FM stations, whose hate speech cases are so serious that they face imminent closure, Mrs Kiano said.

The gravity of the matter cannot be gainsaid. Hate speech too often prefaces massive discrimination and genocidal violence. In many mature democracies, exponents of hate speech face very severe legal sanctions indeed.

Cancerous creed
In some countries, for instance Brazil, hate speech is an un-bailable crime. The 1988 Brazilian Constitution defines racism and other forms of race-related hate speech as “imprescriptible crime with no right to bail to its accused”. Kenyans, who barely 30 months ago witnessed firsthand for themselves what hate speech and hate media content can lead to, need unambiguous legal sanctions against both that are as rigorous as Brazil’s.

Kenya needs to forbid both hate speech and its dissemination. We can ill afford the American luxury of the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to any speech, even if it involves racism, paedophilia, mass murder or sacrilege. However, just across the border in Canada, inciting hatred against any distinct group, or advocating genocide, is an offence under the Criminal Code and carries prison terms of 2 to 14 years.

In Finland on Friday last week, a Rwandese pastor, a Hutu, who incited violence against Tutsis and moderate Hutus was jailed for life. His defence was that he personally did not injure or kill anyone. The Finnish jurists found that he had very effectively spurred others to do what he would not do — maim and kill. This is an exemplarily ruthless punishment of hate speech by the otherwise gentle Finns. But they know what many Kenyans sometimes forget — Hate Speech Kills.

The peddlers of hate speech are genociders in waiting. They must not prevail in Kenya, whoever the purveyors of their cancerous creed might be.
(The author is the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Information and Communications).

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