New Internationalist

Kenya’s political cyber war

social media icons on a mobile phone
Social media has been a prominent location of ‘hate speech’ around the election Jason A. Howie, under a CC License

‘Peace is not merely the absence of war but the presence of justice’ – Martin Luther King, Jnr.

After the 2007 general election, some Kenyans went after each other with clubs and machetes. For the 2013 poll, the war has taken a different shape; it has gone online, in the form of ‘hate speech’.

The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), the body charged with facilitating and promoting peaceful co-existence, describes hate speech as ‘the use of threatening, inciting, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or display of any written material with the intention of stirring up ethnic hatred.’ The penalty is a fine, imprisonment for up to three years, or both.

But the potential punishments have not seemed to deter people from spewing hate on social media. The NCIC recently announced that it was investigating four individuals for hate speech and incitement.

In the last week of March, a blogger by the name of Robert Alai presented himself at the Criminal Investigation Department headquarters. He was allegedly being sought to answer to claims that he participated and promoted hate speech and made false accusations against Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service.

The hate speech exhibited on social media is especially fierce between the supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta (sworn in as president on 9 April 2013) and his election rival, Raila Odinga. Unfortunately in Kenya, political contests always take an ethnic dimension and the online hate speech has reflected this.

In January, the government named blogs, Facebook groups and individuals who are allegedly perpetrating hate speech. The government has said it  will work with Interpol to track those outside the country spreading hate speech. In response, the Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE), while lauding the government’s efforts, added that tracking hate-mongers must not be done at the expense of bloggers’ right to exercise freedom of expression.

‘A distinction, however, must be placed between a blogger and a commenter. A commenter is not necessarily a blogger,’ said the statement.

Blogger, Rayhab Wangari, says that she is shocked by what people will post on social media: ‘I believe people are angry or jubilant, I do not dispute that. But that doesn’t mean that people should vent out their anger on the whole population…I am worried because the election is over, but people’s friendships of many years have ended. Why? Because of the things that they have posted on social media.

Wangari added that she thinks Kenya needs a nationwide counselling and reconciliation process.

Psychologist Patrick Obel, a student counselor at Pan Africa Christian University in Nairobi, believes there is a number of reasons for the rise of hate speech. He said the country has failed to provide safe avenues for people to express themselves without fear of being blacklisted by security agents.

‘We failed to empower our law enforcement systems and institutions. This is evidenced by the fact that we have not had any serious prosecutions of the high and mighty even when it seems clear that someone needed to be prosecuted after the post election violence (in 2007/ 08),’ he said.

He added that the cost of pursuing the legal process is limiting, quite technical and mysterious to most ordinary people which makes it more attractive to speak out and find appeasement on social media.

However, Obel said the long term effect could be disillusionment because the users will quickly realize that their opinions will not receive corresponding response or actions from the bigger system.

‘When required in future to raise any crucial concerns or suggestions, they will have no incentive for it. This will only promote impunity on the one hand, and apathy on the other,’ explained the psychologist.

Obel is against the use of the law to silence the people. He thinks there should be a forum where people can air their views and express their feelings, where they feel safe and protected: ‘The law only seems to protect a small minority of the rich and powerful in society. It is intimidating and dominating on the weak that have no means to seek for legal services to defend their cases in a court of law.

‘Kenyans should not just be used to accumulate votes for those who will in turn use the law to intimidate them.’

The wounds that have been opened will be hard to heal.

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