Kenya: Vernacular Radio Blamed for Fuelling Hatred

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Vernacular radio stations that air comments referring to communities as "baboons," "weeds", or "animals of the west" are being singled out as a partial cause to the ethnic bloodletting in Kenya. The messages are rarely direct calls to violence but are laced with cultural references that are given legitimacy when a station broadcasts them, says Strategic Research executive director Caesar Handa, who has been monitoring the airwaves after the election.

"You'll hear things like 'let us remove the weeds from our crops,' or 'let us remove the spots amongst us," said Handa. "Because of the rate of believability of radio amongst locals, it becomes very easy for people to take up what is said on radio and believe it as a form of gospel truth."

Handa said these uncensored messages are "one of the reasons" behind the escalation of violence in recent weeks. Hate speech in the form of metaphor can be chillingly powerful over the airwaves. Historians believe comments broadcast by the vernacular station, Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda, helped to fuel ethnic hatred behind the genocide there in 1994. Guests on the station's call-in shows referred to the Tutsis, the long-dominant tribe in the former Belgian colony, as "cockroaches."

With ethnic divides in Kenya leading to at least 850 deaths and up to 300,000 people displaced, all ears are now on the country's vernacular radio stations with worries they could plant similar seeds of hate. While Handa said there had been blatant calls to reclaim stolen land on the stations, it is often comments made in a community's language that are rich with meaning that can incite violence. Stations are often seen as representative of their community's aspirations and positions, he said. An individual's views that are broadcast can, therefore, be interpreted to be those of the entire community. The stations that have been singled out in the latest condemnation of vernacular radio include those broadcasting in Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin languages.

In the lead-up to the December 27 poll, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights chairman, Maina Kiai, warned the Electoral Commission of Kenya to keep a close ear on vernacular stations. At the time, there was already evidence of inflammatory statements and hate speech being broadcast, he said.

A pre-election survey of radio stations by Strategic Research found that despite the presence of hate speech on vernacular radio, mainstream radio stations were not broadcasting it. There was also a marked reduction in the amount of inflammatory comments being aired on the vernacular channels following a dark period during the 2005 referendum. Kass FM was taken off the air three days before the 2005 poll for allegedly inciting violence and was then ordered to submit recordings of its broadcasts before its licence was re-instated.

In October, the KNCHR released a report, Still Behaving Badly, documenting human-rights abuses in the lead up to the December poll. It found there had been a decline in hate-speech and inflammatory statements since the 2005 referendum, but that the use of unsavoury language "continues unabated," said the report. The report lamented the failure of the Ninth Parliament to pass proposed legislation to criminalise hate speech by anyone, including politicians.

(The Nation (Nairobi), 2 February 2008)