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Is hate speech to blame for the post-election violence?

Publication Date: 2/4/2008

According to Strategic Research, a company contracted by the UN Development Programme to monitor media coverage in the run-up to the December 27, 2007 elections, inflammatory statements and songs broadcast on radio stations are partly to blame for the ethnically-based violence that has occurred in many parts of the country since the December 27 election results were announced.

Caesar Handa, the chief executive of Strategic Research, told the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that prior to the elections, the use of “hate speech” was prevalent in some sections of the media, particularly the vernacular radio stations, and was also widespread at party rallies.

HANDA CONFIRMED WHAT THE Kenya National Commission on Human Rights had stated as early as October last year, when it released a report entitled Still Behaving Badly, which cited the various derogatory comments politicians were making about other ethnic groups during political rallies. The consequences, as we have seen, were devastating. As one KNCHR official put it:

“People treat it as a big joke. They don’t know that such stereotypes eventually get fixated in people’s minds when they begin to kill people. When we begin to dehumanise other Kenyans and depict them as animals, it’s easy to take a machete and hack them to death.”

The power of the written and spoken word cannot and should not be underestimated. In the weeks leading to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Kigali’s Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines began inciting people to slaughter their Tutsi and moderate Hutu neighbours. When the mass slaughter of about 800,000 people ended, this radio and television station was named as one of the biggest culprits.

In cities such as Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat in India, politicians have been blamed for instigating the riots that engulfed the city in 2002. The violence, which led to the killing and displacement of the city’s Muslim minority, was partly attributed to inflammatory statements issued by leaders of the right-wing Hindu fundamentalist party that controls the state.

Some analysts have suggested that the real cause of the riots was rising frustration among the city’s mostly Hindu unemployed, who blamed the visibly prosperous Muslims in the city for their poverty.

Unfortunately, it is not just the poor and the illiterate that buy into the propaganda of hate. In the last few weeks, I have had the unpleasant experience of exchanging emails with a group of eminent Kenyan academics in the Diaspora, who confirmed my fear that the language of hate can and does cross social and economic lines.

The email discussion was sparked by a column I wrote two weeks ago that asserted that what was happening in Kenya was not the result of ethnic chauvinism, but the result of political and economic exclusion.

Some members of the group disagreed with me and one of them even had the audacity to refer to members of a particular ethnic group of having “defective DNA”.  The discussion got so convoluted that in the end, I dropped out of it altogether because I concluded that these Kenyans living abroad were so out of touch with the reality of present day Kenya, that any exchange with them was futile and a waste of time.

My fear now is that their thinking is going to be transmitted to some poor undergraduate in America or Europe, who is going to accept their arguments without question. What is even scarier is that members of this group are often called to present papers at international conferences and write papers for prestigious journals.

No wonder, foreign correspondents end up portraying Africa as a savage continent. It is not surprising, therefore, that the international media was quick to portray Kenya as a country that was in the throes of a Rwanda-like genocide and described the post-election violence as

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About SG

Secretary general of Chama Cha Mwananchi. This blog www.chamachamwananchi.wordpress.com, is based in Sweden.


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