Hate speech SMS offenders
Story by TIM QUERENGESSER
01. March 2008
A list of more than 1,700 contacts of individuals who created or
forwarded short message service (SMS) messages to incite ethnic
violence has been compiled and is awaiting government action.
The list of individuals who have been tracked through their phone
numbers is sitting on the desk of Information and Communications
permanent secretary Bitange Ndemo.
But as the Government prepares to crack down following
post-election violence that has killed more than 1,000 people in
two months, a familiar problem has emerged: there is no law
governing hate speech over mobile phones, radio and television.
“We don’t have the law, a content law, that is what we are working
on now,” said Dr Ndemo. “We liberalised the airwaves before we had
It is a bitter pill to swallow for the Kenya National Commission
on Human Rights. Last year, the commission drafted a content Bill
along with civil society groups that would have made hate speech
The proposed law was submitted to MPs just before the December
election, but in a display of political cynicism, was shot down at
a moment when it was needed most.
The commission has been monitoring SMSs for hate speech since the
2005 constitutional referendum, and has a dossier of hundreds of
them from the most recent poll.
“We are hoping once the dust has settled over the crisis that it (content
law) will be passed,” said Mr Kamanda Mucheke, a senior human
rights officer at KNCHR. “It’s unfortunate we had to go through
Hate speech, misinformation and rumours flowed through the
airwaves in the election aftermath. Members of ethnic communities
were dehumanised as “weeds,” “spots,” or “animals” on vernacular
radio call-in shows. As a result, the Government promptly banned
Much the same language was arriving on mobile phones through
anonymous and forwarded messages.
Many were funny and passed from friend to friend. Others were full
of misinformation that could spark misguided actions and shared
like battle commands.
The most stark encouraged people to deal with their enemies “the
Rwanda way,” though the most violent messages were in mother
tongues and cloaked in metaphors.
With more than 10 million SMSs sent every day, and an audience of
nine million phone owners -- and growing fast -- the potential
impact of SMS to incite violence in Kenya is huge.
Sources reveal that pressure mounted on Dr Ndemo to block messages
after banning live radio. But he didn’t.
“There were so many stranded people in the forests who were
sending SMSs to their relatives,” he said. “So, had we shut it
down, we would have caused more damage than what we had intended
The United Nations and foreign embassies also depend on SMS
technology as a back-up communications platform.
The situation required the Government to side with caution rather
than censorship, agrees Mr Mucheke. “If we shut it down, we will
not know (who is trying to call out for help). To me there is more
good in letting it go. The SMS is innocent. You have to address
the root causes.”
But this is exactly where Mr Mucheke mounts his campaign for
change. The lack of laws now coming under scrutiny with hate
speech are part of a larger problem of a culture of impunity in
Kenya, he said.
The stakes are high with SMS, he warned. The technology is great
at spreading hate, but has also become an everyday part of life
Messages can be forwarded for very little money, stored on one’s
phone and shared, and they arrive on your phone wherever you are.
Rumours in writing also tend to carry a legitimacy that those by
word-of-mouth don’t, he added.
For hate mongers, at the moment, “it’s easier to use SMS than
radio,” he said. “There’s more censorship on radio. On SMS, no one
monitors. That made it the most efficient and easiest medium of
proliferating hate speech.”
Anonymity is also a problem. It is quite easy to buy a phone, SIM
card and airtime credit without ever having to reveal your
identity, said Mr Mucheke.
In addition to passing the content law, the commission is calling
on the Government to create a database of numbers and network
users to crack down on the anonymity currently ruling cellphones
Another problem is language. The most inciting messages sent in
the post-election melee were metaphorical and in people’s mother
tongues -- much like the messages spread over the radio airwaves.
Dr Ndemo has now ordered filters placed on all incoming and
outgoing SMS at all three cellphone carriers, which search for
pre-set strands of words that could incite violence. “My headache
is to find which is the new terminologies they are using.”
But this won’t work, according to Mr Mucheke. “Most of these
things are done in metaphorical language. When I say ‘our people’
in Kikuyu, it is meaningless (to most) but it has meaning to some.
There is nothing criminal but the effect is powerful.”
As the Government slowly comes to grips with its new structure and
starts to tackle the problems that allowed the country to spin out
of control, it will likely seek to make an example of the most
blatant abusers of the service to send a message to others.
“We want to see those who are notorious in sending them (taken to
court),” said Dr Ndemo.
But the Penal Code is currently the last option to prosecute those
who have promoted hate.
Companies that send bulk SMSs to random numbers are the
Government’s first target. One company owner is set to be charged
under the Penal Code, confirmed Dr Ndemo.