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Kenya’s hate-speech test

By Carlvins Odera in Nairobi
Posted on Wednesday, 31 August 2016 11:09

Kenya’s elections are due in August 2017, and feverish political campaigns are already ratcheting up political tension with incendiary language.

The post-election violence in 2007 resulted in the murder of 1,200 Kenyans and more than 500,000 people displaced, which was largely attributed by a judicial commission of inquiry to the work of ethnic militias inspired by political speeches and radio broadcasts.

In June, eight politicians were locked up in police custody for four days and charged with violating hate-speech laws. Among the most alarming was a statement by member of parliament (MP) Moses Kuria at a prayer meeting outside Nairobi in which he called for the assassination of opposition leader Raila Odinga.

A new constitution enacted in 2010 prohibits hate speech, and a new law establishes a National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) headed by a former speaker of the National Assembly, Francis Ole Kaparo. Prosecutions are pending in the courts, but no one has been convicted for the newly enacted offence of incitement to ethnic hatred.

What makes Kuria’s statement even more controversial is that he is MP for Gatundu South, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s former constituency. Kenyatta, who was in Brussels when the arrests were made, decried the irresponsible political speech and said that even if Kuria were his brother he would not hesitate to take action.

Odinga, meanwhile, extended a very public olive branch a week later with a lunch for those arrested, to which the press was invited.

Kuria has already tangled with the authorities over his words. In January last year, barely hours after he was pardoned by the NCIC for making hate-speech remarks, news media featured a screenshot of Kuria’s Twitter page in which he had changed his name to “Bible verse Genesis 17:14”. This was seen by many to reference Odinga, a member of the Luo ethnic group who traditionally do not circumcise their sons.

There are problems with hate speech on both sides of the political spectrum. In Machakos, a dusty town situated 63km east of Nairobi, members of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) gathered in July at Mulu Mutisya Gardens to welcome Senator Johnstone Nduya Muthama – a “homecoming” event for a “hero”, graced by CORD leader Odinga.

Muthama,who was among the politicians detained last month for suggesting that killing Kenyans might be a good thing, was effervescent, undeterred and dancing jovially for a wild crowd. He said he would not “honour summonses” by the NCIC any more.

Mwalimu Mati, the chief executive of Mars Group Kenya, a media watchdog organisation, says there is a long way to go to address the problem of political hate speech: “Irresponsible journalism aside, the courts – with a long backlog of cases and the suspicion that they are amenable to political influence – have yet to provide a deterrent effect on the words of politicians in Kenya.” According to Mati’s count: “Moses Kuria has a bond of about KSh10m ($100,000) for three charges from 2014, 2015 and 2016, but it seems to have no deterrent effect on him whatsoever.”

A commission that investigated the 2007/2008 violence also reported that vernacular radio stations played a very large role in disseminating propaganda for violence and war, largely by quoting politicians. The media council set up by the government to monitor journalistic ethics seems powerless over broadcast media, raising doubt as to its capacity to rest rain hate speech.●

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