The election campaign period in Kenya is usually hectic for statutory body who keeps tabs on inflammatory rhetoric on political platforms and the media. This is hardly surprising for a public watchdog formed in response to the 2007 post-election violence in which more than 1,100 people were killed. Both sides stood accused exacerbated ethnic tensions that had been accumulating for years.
The National Cohesion and Integration Commission was shape at the end of the violence in 2008 to promote national identity and values. It was charged with mitigating ethno-political competition and ethnically motivated violence, eliminating discrimination on an ethnic, racial or religious basis, and promoting national reconciliation and healing.
Every election since 2007 has been marked by fear of violence, and inflammatory speeches have always figured. Ahead of the 2022 election on August 9, the independent watchdog warns of
concern that the 2022 general election draws several parallels with that of 2007. Moreover, most of the underlying causes of conflict remain largely unresolved.
In previous campaigns, the watchdog said on its website, people shared negative ethnic messages to discredit political opponents and make voters more easily accept campaign demands. These negative messages were sent by political leaders, musicians, political analysts, journalists and bloggers, among others.
In the latest crackdown on hate messages, the commission has released a list of words and phrases it deems likely to foment ethnic hatred as Kenya heads towards the August 2022 general elections. blacklisted wordshe said, have been “regularly used in Kenya’s political landscape with the intention of provoking violence among communities of various political viewpoints”, particularly during the current political campaign period.
There are a few weaknesses.
The first is that the commission lacks legal mechanisms to act against the perpetrators and can only make recommendations to the competent authorities. The implications are that politicians, musicians, media professionals, etc. are likely to get away with alleged hate speech charges.
A high-profile case in 2012 against three musicians failed because the charges were based on “criminal interpretation of artistic works” and the prosecution “did not present sufficient evidence to link the singers to the alleged hate speech”.
Second, by cracking down on hate speech only at campaign rallies, the commission overlooks media input to the problem.
Third, the everyday discourse of Kenyans is replete with ethnic bile, misogynistic remarks and words that are downright dehumanizing. There is no hope that the commission will have any impact on this if it only acts during an election campaign. It should find relevance at all times, not just during election season.
stir up hatred
Every five years, at election time, the underlying ethnic rivalries are reignited through songs, words, euphemisms, epithets and insults. Ordinary words and slogans can take on completely different meanings when used during campaigns and depending on the context.
On the list of blacklisted phrases, for example, is “Linda Kura,” which in its ordinary Kiswahili meaning is a call to “protect the vote and ensure that all votes cast are duly counted.” . It should be a welcome phrase about civic duty, especially in a country where allegations of election rigging are rife.
Popular music slogans can be leveraged to galvanize support. The speech watchdog blacklisted the song Sipangwingwi by Exray-Taniua. The title is street slang derived from the Kiswahili word “sipangwi” (I’m not told what to do). The lyrics of the song, as well as its forbidden plural form “hatupagwingwi”seem harmless and innocent, and relate to the struggles of everyday life.
It is likely that the word was reported because it was adopted as a political slogan by one of the political parties. But as a political commentator Macharia Gaitho argues that “the political slogan will always be about competition, rivalries and territory. It will indicate rivalries and antagonisms…but it can hardly be considered hate speech.”
By blacklisting words that emanate from a song, the public watchdog appears to contravene the same constitution that guarantees free speech. In its attempt to ostensibly tackle hate speech that could cause ethnic tension, the commission’s choice of words on the blacklist falls short, as explained below. It doesn’t do much to fix its current image as toothless bulldog.
What the commission can do
That’s not to say the watchdog should stop discouraging hate speech. But he must fully understand the contexts of how certain words are used.
According to a linguist and cultural expert Kimani Njogu,
words derive their meaning from the context in which they are used. In hate speech monitoring, the words identified should meet additional criteria…such as context of use, intentionality, location in which they are used, who uses them, etc.
The current blacklist, for example, does not include these words that continually denigrate female politicians. Ethnic jokes are still thrown at married female politicians in all communities.
The blacklist also misses a good number of words and phrases that could easily spread ethnic hatred and political violence. It is not clear why some relatively innocent words are included and other more powerful ones are left out.
Perhaps the commission should focus more on the barrage of misinformation and misinformation that is most likely to cause serious political dissent. He understands the allegations assassination plots and political conspiracies – serious grievances that could polarize communities and fuel ethnic violence.
In its inability to comprehensively address issues that could lead to ethnic discord, the commission is failing in its core mandate to promote national unity, equity and the elimination of all forms of ethnic discrimination by facilitating equal opportunities, peaceful conflict resolution and respect for the diversity of Kenyan communities. Publishing a few lexical items without extensive research is certainly not a step in the right direction.