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Hate speech is audible amid the din of intensifying campaigns

By Suleiman Bashir Salah | Jan 17th 2022 | 4 min read

The nature, extent and consequences of inflammatory hate speech are pretty evident. [Courtesy]

The history of hate speech and incitement to violence in Kenya is a long, widespread and unhappy one. Hate speech and the fanning of ethnic discord was linked with violence after the 2007 elections that left nearly 1,500 people dead and another 600,000 displaced.

Politicians have sought to manipulate community grievances to whip up support in every contested election since the restoration of a multiparty system in Kenya in 1992. The grievances revolve around land, employment and access to the material benefits of political office. Criminal gangs or unemployed youths are often used to intimidate opponents and evict their supporters from areas the politicians claim to be theirs. This manipulation has routinely involved the creation and escalation of ethnic suspicion and hatred.

The nature, extent and consequences of inflammatory hate speech are pretty evident. They emerge at times of political tension or conflict and in the run-up to and during election campaigns. Those charged or accused of hate speech are rarely successfully prosecuted. Cases either drag on without result or are dropped – often for political reasons. The failure of prosecutions gives those who engage in hate speech for political ends a feeling of impunity. The violence that often accompanies political disputes or elections is testimony to the efficacy of hate propaganda as a tool in the political arsenal of Kenyan politicians.

In 2008, Kenya enacted the National Cohesion and Integration Act which, for the first time, defined hate speech and established the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC). The definition of hate speech adopted in the Act broadly entails two major components which is the use or spread of content that is threatening, abusive or insulting, and the intent to stir up ethnic hatred. Given the context in which this definition was developed, it is unsurprising that the core conceptual focus is ethnicity.

Ethnic hatred and incitement to ethnic violence have now migrated to the Internet and social media in Kenya. In blogs, on Facebook and on Twitter, Kenyans have taken the venom of ethnic chauvinism, hatred and incitement to the digital world to escape the fairly effective measures adopted by the print and broadcast media in restricting inciting speech. Indeed, the retreat of the hate-mongers to the crevices of the Internet is a testament to the effectiveness of some of the measures taken to regulate harmful speech since the post-election violence.

The government recently launched the National Computer and Cybercrime Coordination Committee, dubbed NC4, which is a committee provided for under the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act. NC4 would prioritise the misuse of social media in the run-up to the general election, raising the likelihood of arrests and prosecutions.

It would therefore seem that through the NCIC and the NC4, the government has doubled down on policing the spread of inciteful rhetoric online – a herculean task that may well jeaopardise the space for political speech.

The risk posed by inciteful political rhetoric demands a comprehensive and inclusive approach. Kenya cannot afford to entrench mistrust by relying solely on prosecutorial action that may, in some instances, be politically motivated, and is typically wholly oblivious to the harms posed by the conduct of social media platforms. Any efforts at mitigating the impact of hate speech on social media should not ignore the fact that numerous stakeholders have a role to play, though with varying degrees of importance.

Crucially, these efforts should not detract from the space for healthy civic engagement. Political actors must recognise their centrality to the nature of discourse around the forthcoming election that takes place online. It is imperative for them to publicly commit to avoiding engaging in the spread of hateful, inciteful or false content. Examples such as the Election Pledge developed by the Transatlantic Commission on Electoral Integrity are instructive in this regard.

Through public pledges acting as rules of engagement, political actors can signal their commitment to healthy democratic debate. These political actors should also recognise the sway they have over their supporters and proxies and should do their best to encourage positive conduct.

In political party meetings and rallies, political actors should ensure that they communicate a zero-tolerance policy towards hateful or divisive rhetoric. To entrench a culture of healthy discourse, political actors should collaborate with civil society to engage the citizenry in civic education.

Much like several hate speech laws around the world, the breadth of the definition of hate speech in Kenya has been criticised as potentially stifling free expression, particularly due to the criminal sanction. While the Constitution provides hate speech as an exception to the freedom of expression, restrictions on speech under the Constitution ought to be proportionate.

In other words, the restriction of speech which is of a hateful or inciteful nature should not be done in a way that would put other forms of speech such as healthy political debate at risk.

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