News 2008


Hate speech SMS offenders already tracked

Daily Nation


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.”

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 illegal.

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 this first.”

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 live broadcasts.

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 to prevent.”

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 for Kenyans.

Carry legitimacy

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 in Kenya.

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.”

Blatant abusers

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.