Hate Speech Heats Up on Local Radio in Kenya

Hate speech and the fanning of ethnic discord was linked with violence after the disputed 2007 Kenyan elections that left 1,330 dead and more than 600,000 displaced. This violence is testimony to the efficacy of hate propaganda as a tool in the political arsenal of Kenyan politicians. There is little to deter its use again. Those accused of hate speech are rarely successfully prosecuted. Cases either drag on or are dropped, often for political reasons. Successful propagandists become valuable instruments for political leaders and their parties.

Discredited by their association with the post-election violence in 2007, professional journalists have done much to transform the way they report the news. But since 2016, observers have noted a resurgence of hate speech in community and local language media, mainly due to lack of capacity of journalists, and political interference or ownership. This is particularly true for media houses based at the county level, where media is under resourced and susceptible to control of local political interests. Of greatest concern is the rise of hate speech on radio talk shows on local-language stations, a primary source of news and information for many citizens. Nowhere is this concern greater than in Laikipia county in Kenya, where hate speech is rearing its head in advance of the 2017 elections, causing significant concern that violence could once again break out.

Laikipia in the Rift Valley of Kenya is famous for its rich diversity of wildlife and natural beauty. It is also home to people from almost every tribe in the country, from the Maasai to the Kikuyu. In the midst of this beauty and diversity, Laikipia is facing a number of critical challenges. There is significant conflict around land issues and ethnic politics are on the rise. There is a proliferation of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and dispossessed squatters and an availability of cheap weapons creating a growing gun culture. Corruption is rampant, particularly in the justice system, exacerbating land disputes. To top it all off, the region is in the middle of a significant drought, making resources scarce and further exacerbating land use challenges. Politicians are manipulating these tensions in what is emerging as a familiar pre-election pattern — a distinct rise in hate speech fueled by politicians and local media.

Three men sit in the shade of a tree
Laikipia Maasai in Leparwa. They are also the custodians of the Il Ngwesi Conservancy. The man on the far right is the conservancy chairman Lela Kinyaga. Sammy Muraya/Kenya

Since mid-2016, Laikipia’s local landowners, who are predominately Maasai, have accused the politicians of a rival tribe, the Samburu, of trying to push the Maasai off their lands, in part through illegal cattle rustling. Clashes have caused 10 deaths and the displacement of 10,000 others, while local-language media have been used as platforms for hostile exchanges between Members of Parliament representing Maasai and Samburu communities. The story has now making international news.

“Our politics in Laikipia is tribal,” said youth leader Joseph Esokom. “Right now you will hear people from the Kikuyu, Turkana, Pokot and Samburu communities protecting their politicians and an attack on any of them is seen as an attack to a whole community.”

Laikipia county contains people with a wide range of literacy and educational backgrounds. In the town centers, people huddle around newspaper vendors early in the morning to catch up on the previous day’s news. Waiting areas around transport hubs are filled with music and chatter from radio stations throughout the day. In the evenings, small crowds of people gather around restaurants that have a single mounted TV on the wall loudly beaming Swahili news from various TV stations. And throughout the county, people increasingly have mobile phones and access to social media. However, most of the population relies on radio as their main media source because of limited electricity outside the main shopping centers.

There are popular radio stations that broadcast in the dominant languages of Swahili and English. Some stations broadcast in the local languages of Maasai, Samburua and Kikuyu. One of the most popular, Serian FM, speaks primarily to young herders in Samburu county and has been accused of allowing Samburu politician to instigate hate speech. In a recent call to Serian FM, a member of parliament representing the Samburu, referred to another member, representing the Maasai, as a “whore.” The comment was widely interpreted by Maasai people as an attack on their community.

These feelings also flow the other way. Many in the Samburu community feel they are being attacked by the Maasai. “We are not the ones bringing violence in Laikipia,” says Elijah Lenyakopiro, former chief in Samburu County. “Our names are just being spoilt.”

What can be done?

Effectively mitigating hate speech begins with understanding the incentives for the perpetrators. In the context of Laikipia, issues around corruption and land use are key drivers, fueled by corruption, drought and the large numbers of IDPs and guns in the country. Journalists trained to cover these issues in an unbiased way can do much to mitigate emerging tensions. Objective coverage and the inclusion of a plurality of voices can educate the local population on issues and model new forms of dialogue between rival groups. This reporting can undercut politicians who take advantage of naivety among local populations to foment anger and drive greater support for their positions.

This ideal is far from reality in Laikipia. In the county, local stations are starved for cash and often rely on untrained stringers who operate more like citizen journalists, providing stories to their outlets that reflect the narrative of whoever pays for the story. Local stations also rarely report on corruption cases because of low capacity or a fear of reprisal. Education about land policies and laws is virtually nonexistent. Talk show hosts, who play an important role in the public discourse and often drive opinion about current affairs, are not skilled in handling biased language and managing callers with radical political views.

Targeted training of key journalists can go a long way toward calming the public discourse in Laikipia and preventing another outbreak of violence leading up to or following the upcoming elections. In addition to basic editorial support, one key approach is to provide intensive conflict-sensitive journalism training for local radio stations. This proven approach gives journalists tools to analyze conflict dynamics in their communities and teaches them to mitigate hate speech and use language that does not stigmatize while allowing for careful, non-prescriptive exploration of causes of conflict and possible solutions. Media outlets sensitive to conflict can create space for people-to-people reconciliation through coverage that is accurate, balanced, constructive, and represents all dimensions.

Jennifer Cobb is Vice President for Strategic Outreach at Internews.