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Will Kenya’s New Hate Speech Rules Do Any Good?

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After the post-election violence (PEV) in Kenya a couple of years ago, the media was received a portion of the blame for inflaming public opinion, with vernacular radio stations in particular being accused of being the worst culprits. To prevent a repeat, the government has written a new set of guidelines to monitor “hate speech” and incitement to violence. Will they have any effect?

Naturally, nobody wants a repeat of the violence that convulsed the country in 2007-8, and anyone using tribalism or ethnicity as a mean to sow division and discord is obviously an idiot and also potentially dangerous. But while it is possible to moderate language on the airwaves, it is far more difficult to police sentiment. And it is sentiment that drives talk-shows, no matter what words is used. A caller or talk-show host may not say a specific word, but that does not mean that the audience will not understand exactly what they are hinting at.

Further, most of these talk-shows, as I understand it, are live. Now even if you have a ten-second delay in place, how do you stop a caller or guest speaker from going off on a rant? And who is liable if they do? The article on the guidelines doesn’t say anything about what possible sanctions might be in place for any outlets that break the rules, so it is unclear on exactly how they are going to be enforced. And this is where things get sticky: coming up to an election, mud is going to be thrown, and politicians are going to complain about receiving what they see as unfair criticism from certain media outlets, but does that actually count as hate speech? Who gets to decide?

What has also been completely overlooked is the role that social media played in stirring up trouble during the PEV. There is nothing to stop a repeat of the ugly emails, Facebook wall posts, SMS messages and tweets that were widely circulated at the time, not by media outlets but by individuals with an agenda. While limited to those who had access to the necessary technology, those still played a part in stirring up the violent rhetoric in the immediate aftermath of the elections. Even if there was a radio and television blackout after the next election, how would the government go about monitoring those?

It would be great if Kenyan media independently chose to raise the tone of the debate at the next elections. But playing an active role in keeping things calm might mean censoring some of the more extreme opinions swirling around, which can be a tricky judgement call to make, especially when emotions are running high and personal prejudices might play a role. While this should be a matter of sensible policy in editing suites up and down the country, I’m not sure that a set of rules with a nebulous definition of “hate speech” is going to be very effective.

[Image by AleBonvini]


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