NAIROBI, Kenya, Jul 11 – Following a wave of online hate speech before and after the Kenyan General Election this March, the government agency whose job is to investigate offences has been accused of inaction.
Despite hundreds of cases where offensive material has been posted on social media sites like Facebook, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) has only launched six formal investigations under a law criminalising hate speech.
Official media across Kenya were blamed for inciting the bloodshed that followed the last election in December 2007. More than 1,100 people were killed and 650,000 others were displaced from their homes as the disputed ballot result triggered violence along ethnic lines.
The violence in 2007 and early 2008 meant that in the run-up to this year’s election, the authorities were on the look-out for people trying to heighten tensions in both traditional and social media. As well as the NCIC, the police’s Criminal Investigation Department had an entire office devoted to tackling hate speech online.
As it turned out, the mainstream press and broadcasters largely kept to the rules, and the problem shifted to the online media which have boomed in Kenya in recent years.
“Some of the abusive, highly corrosive, divisive, tribalistic messages and blogs are criminal,” the then head of Kenya’s civil service, Francis Kimemia, warned in January, two months before the elections. “We are zeroing (in) and identifying individuals by name for prosecution.”
Two of the six individuals which the NCIC has accused of spreading hate speech over the web are well-known bloggers – Dennis Itumbi and Robert Alai. Only Alai has been formally charged at this point. The pair is famous for courting controversy through Internet posts, but both deny allegations that they indulged in hate speech.
Last year, Itumbi sued Alai for alleging on social media that he had authored a fake dossier claiming that Britain planned to have Kenya’s former president, Mwai Kibaki, charged for the 2007-08 electoral violence by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The NCIC says the other four suspects are a military officer, a teacher, a student and a prison warder. They have not been named as the investigations are still ongoing.
The commission has come under fire for not bringing proceedings against any of the numerous other individuals who posted incendiary material online during and after the elections.
The Nairobi-based online monitoring group Umati logged 5,683 posts containing hate speech on social media between October 2012 and May 2013. A quarter of those contained calls to kill, beat or forcefully evict one or more members of various ethnic groups.
Brice Rambaud, programme director of the democracy and governance programme at the media consultancy Internews, noted that NCIC seemed to be targeting well-known bloggers and social media activists.
“This action (by NCIC) has some shortcomings,” he told IWPR. “Most of the dangerous speech witnessed on social media came from ordinary citizens.”
Rambaud’s colleague Mark Irungu argues that the NCIC has deliberately gone after famous bloggers in order to win publicity for its efforts to combat hate speech.
“I feel like they only got the popular culprits, but not the real ones, with intention to use them as examples,” Irungu, a digital media developer at Internews, said.