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State actors take no action as hate speech spreads on social media

NCIC Chairman Dr Samuel Kobia during a past meeting at the Kenya School of Government, Nairobi. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

In less than three months millions of Kenyans will go to the polls to vote for their preferred representatives in the General Election.

Like previous election run-ups, this year’s is providing the same challenges that past elections have posed to organisers. A rise in intolerance, hate speech, outlandish claims and bizarre accusations characterise the race for the political seats.

In the last month, the country has been treated to scenes that involved the stoning of a chopper carrying opposition leader Raila Odinga and the shooting attempt on Mvita MP seat aspirant Ali Mwatsahu.

As this happens, those charged with policing the aspirants and holding them to account have once more found themselves boxed in, unable to investigate, charge or prosecute individuals or political parties whipping up the emotions of the electorate.

Political campaigns have been disrupted, and presidential aspirants heckled on the basis of tribe, culture and background. Those aspiring to get nominated for other seats have also not had it easy.

For them, the hate directed at them is not displayed in front of hundreds at a political rally, but to hundreds of thousands on online platforms and social media. In this year’s election, the hate speech is broadcasted straight to the inboxes of millions.

On Friday, the public institution mandated to curb hate released a list of banned hate words. Among them was ‘sipangwingwi’, a machoistic term loved by Kenya’s politicians. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) said hate is no longer spread through political rallies alone but through social media. The agency further listed several notorious Facebook pages.

Towards the end of 2021, policy organisation, the Strong Cities Network, mapped and analysed online content in Kenya between May 2019 and May 2020. It looked into patterns as the country heads into the election.

Ethnic stereotyping

The data from the year-long survey uncovered biases that pointed towards hate-based narratives and ethnic stereotyping. Some of these biases could be found on social media platforms commanding audiences running into millions.

“Researchers identified more than 85,000 posts that were intolerant towards specific ethnic, religious and political identities, with 50 per cent of posts on public Facebook groups that had a collective subscriber rate of more than two million,” the SCN report says.

It further shows that the data makes clear the potential for mass public exposure to hateful content.

It may result in a mainstreaming of hate and in turn open the public to exploitation by extremist groups seeking to mobilise violence offline, particularly in the run-up to elections.

“Every five years the country is turned on its head,” political commentator Javas Bigambo says.

“All the reconciliation that happens between elections is erased and we, fanned by alarmist rhetoric, go back to our tribal biases.”

The violent 2007 elections that saw the death of at least 1,300 people, the displacements of more than 650,000 people and the destruction of property worth hundreds of millions of shillings led to the formation of the NCIC.

The commission was established under the National Cohesion and Integration Act No.12 of 2008. The establishment of NCIC recognised the need for a national institution to promote national identity and values, and mitigate ethno-political competition and ethnically motivated violence.

It also sought to eliminate discrimination on an ethnic, racial, and religious basis and promote national reconciliation. NCIC says to date, it has solved 3,000 cases and investigated a further 96.

Late last month, government spokesperson Col. Cyrus Oguna said the commission was actively investigating at least 51 cases reported to it between April 2021 and April 2022.

Government spokesperson Col. Cyrus Oguna. [John Muia, Standard]

“Social media platforms are flooded with ethnic hatred, hate speech and incitement to violence. Since March 2022 we flagged 12 cases which are under cyber forensic investigations,” the commission’s chairperson Dr. Samuel Kobia said on April 8.

“This is a rise compared to the previous months. We have noted regroupings and new political forums on social media platforms. This can be attributed to the ongoing party nominations and the upcoming general election.

“The main perpetrators of these are advent followers of 2022 politics of succession, largely Azimio and UDA followers.”

Dr. Kobia said the commission was aware that some boda boda groups are being used as criminal gangs for political ends.

“Unfortunately, the issuance of statements is not enough. Whenever they issue statements no one is threatened and no one appreciates the weight of such statements.

“The fact that they have been reduced to an institution of research shows us something is wrong,” Mr Bigambo says.

In its strategic plan, it raises the issue of poor funding and a general lack of understanding of their mandate by the public. But as the commission struggles to establish a less polarising political narrative, politicians are doing little to diffuse the situation.

Summoned

In early March, opposition leader Raila Odinga was summoned by the commission on the basis of utterances he made at a political rally in Wajir. This followed summons issued to Meru Senator Mithika Linturi, a top political ally of Deputy President William Ruto on hate speech charges.

Senator Linturi was presented before the court but was not required to take a plea after the prosecution failed to prefer charges against him within the allocated time.

Senator Linturi’s case resulted in a blame game between the commission and the Office of the Director Of Public Prosecution, each of these two government agencies blaming the other for the collapse of the case.

“The ODPP will make the decision to charge once investigations are completed in the ethnic contempt case against Senator Linturi.

“The ODPP returned the file to the NCIC to cover outstanding investigation gaps before resubmission,” the ODPP said in a Tweet following the court decision.

Over the years, many cases similar to Mr Linturi’s have fallen through the cracks. Often, the evidence fails to meet the required threshold set by the court and the prosecution fails to line up witnesses.

Mr Bigambo says this is a failure of the NCIC and the ODDP.

Director Of Public Prosecution Noordin Haji. [File, Standard]

“They are afraid of politicians,” he said of the two institutions.

“They cannot call out the President or the Deputy President whenever these two make statements that are in contradiction to their offices being symbols of national unity. Their mandate is always under the threat of being choked financially.”

The next weeks remain critical for the commission and state agencies charged with maintaining peace.

Data and history show hate speech incidents rise as Kenya draws closer to the election.

“Violence-free elections remain our core business. We call for an end to divisive talks and call for political tolerance,” Dr Kobia said.

Since its establishment in 2009, the commission has been unable to prosecute hate speech due to a lack of evidence and willing witnesses to testify. There is also the issue of ambiguity in the law, the definition of hate speech and prosecution gaps.

According to the commission’s Act, 2008, a person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words commits an offence.

“Any person who commits an offence under this section shall be liable to a fine not exceeding one million shillings or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to both,” states sub-section 13 (2) of the Act.

“When it comes to court cases, the threshold required for evidence to bring the perpetrators to book is very high and that is why we are working with the judiciary and other agencies to arrive at reasonable evidence,” said Sam Kona, a commissioner at the NCIC.

The commission had sought an amendment of the NCIC Act to grant them powers to prosecute cases it investigates without forwarding the files to the ODPP.

Eric Theuri, Law Society of Kenya (LSK) president, however, feels the law is adequate enough to deal with hate speech cases. What is lacking according to Theuri, is a proper collaboration between NCIC, police, and the ODPP.