When Radio Spreads Violence: Free Speech Questioned in Kenya

ImageNairobi, Kenya – Many people were murdered with machetes and some victims were assaulted with arrows. Occasionally, in the dead of the night, victims were corralled by a mob to forlorn structures where they were executed. In one egregious act of cruelty, a physically challenged elderly woman in a wheelchair was burnt to death alongside 34 of her tribal compatriots when the church building they had sought safety in was scorched. On another occasion, a Catholic priest suffered death by stoning.

These clashes that officially claimed 1,000 lives and displaced tens of thousands of people from their homeland in December 2007 may have been avoided had the population cared to take the advice of former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, who warned against the role radio broadcasts can have in inciting ethnic violence.

Moi’s tenure as Independent Kenya’s second President witnessed a heightened sense of tribal xenophobia. In August of 2000, Moi declared that all vernacular FM radio stations were to be banned altogether. Arguing that they promoted "tribal chauvinism and undermined national unity," he directed the Attorney General, Amos Wako, to draft legislation that would force radio stations to broadcast only in the two recognizable national languages, namely English and Kiswahili.

However, the then Minister of Information, Johnstone Makua successfully countered the proposal in a ministerial statement saying that, "vernacular is part of the Kenyan cultural and there is nothing we can do about it." Beginning in 1996 when authorities acceded to licensing of independent broadcast stations, the tendency to broadcast in vernacular was enthusiastically adopted and in 2000 the government went ahead to license Kenya’s first vernacular language FM radio station.

Broadcasting in the Kikuyu language, Kameme FM fell foul of Moi after only six-months of activity. Moi stated, "This vernacular radio station (Kameme FM) should be banned because we have seen that ethnic radio stations can be misused to incite anarchy and genocide as happened in neighboring Rwanda." But in a strange turn of events, the Moi Administration went ahead to launch an official vernacular FM station, Inooro, that also broadcasted in the Kikuyu language. Coincidently, cobbling up 22% of the entire 34 million populace that cuts across 43 disparate communities the Kikuyu tribe is numerically the country’s largest. Today almost all 43 ethnic groups in Kenya have attachments to particular vernacular FM stations. 

This free speech controversy became a major issue in Rwanda during the genocide there in 1994. The Rwandan conflict was exacerbated by a hate message broadcast on the notorious Radio Mille Collines (RMC) during call-in shows where the minority Tutsi community was derogatively referred to as ‘cockroaches’ by the Hutus, who were the numerically dominant tribe. "Kill the inkotanyi" (cockroaches) went a chilling clarion cry on RMC. Within three months of the tribal instigated madness a total of 850,000 people were killed, victims of the hate messages broadcasted over the radio.

Understandably, when the recent ethnic clashes in Kenya threatened the continued existence of Kenya as a unitary state, Moi’s unheeded concern looked perceptive. Long before national elections were held last December vernacular radio stations were already igniting ethnic consciousness among listeners, "urging them to support political leaders from their own tribe and to harbor bad feelings about people from other communities," says Tervil Okoko, Chairman of the Kenya Union of Journalists ( KUJ).

Okoko added, "The ethnic hate that the radio stations were propagating about other communities was unbelievable. I cannot make myself repeat what they were saying. The unfortunate thing is that we as journalists allowed speakers to say as they wished and we tagged along, sometimes laughing alongside them. We took sides in the issues and we became subjective, forgetting our professional tenants for objectivity and neutrality. In fact, in some broadcast stations some journalists refused to take up assignments simply because the source of say a news item happened to be a member of an ethnic grouping they were politically estranged from."

Finding himself in a tight spot, Samuel Poghisio, the country’s Information and Communications Minister is at pains explaining the relevance of vernacular radio stations in a country where ethnic fault lines have intermittently threatened the glue that has held this East Africa state together for the past 45 years. 

While acknowledging that vernacular radio stations had become promoters of ethnic violence, the Information and Communications Minister says the professional lapses witnessed before and after the polls were a result of weak legislation. "The law as currently constituted is very ambiguous for it did not envisage a time when the media would supposedly grow to allow vernacular FM stations to broadcast messages with political overtones," Minister Poghisio explained. "Essentially the vernacular FM stations were supposed to be entertaining outlets for the country’s various ethnic groups but in the recent past, and particularly because of the libertarian attitude of the Mwai Kibaki lead Government (2003 to present), some practitioners in the sector have gone ahead to exploit existing loopholes particularly in their call-in shows."

[Photo from December 2007 election violence. By Tom Maruko.]

It is baffling that successive governments seem unable to tame the rogue stations, with culpable parties at worst receiving a slap on the wrist. In November 2005, KASS FM, a vernacular radio station broadcasting in the Kalenjin dialect – of which Moi belongs to – was taken off air by the government for seven days, allegedly because it was inciting listeners to violence days before a historic referendum on the Constitution.

According to Dr. Wambui Kiaii, Director of the School of Journalism at the University of Nairobi (UON), the scourge of inadequate or altogether absence of professional training among a cadre of so-called radio journalists has been the bane of the profession in Kenya. "With the liberalization of the airwaves, the Government completely forgot to outline that only professional journalists would be permitted behind a mic," explained Dr. Kiaii. "Today anybody can metamorphosis into a radio journalist. And the results are now self evident. It’s a mosaic of an accident waiting to happen. And also the professionals themselves can do very little to correct this disastrous anomaly because it would be tantamount to interfering with private enterprise."

David Ochami, a Commissioner with the Media Council of Kenya, (MCK) the official organization that is supposed to police the local media fraternity, believes the law governing vernacular FM stations should be updated to reflect the current realities. Saying some FM stations had become instruments of spreading ethnic and sexist prejudices, Ochami confesses that the MCK’s mandate does not include, "taking firm action, like say banning a station from broadcasting. We only recommend. Ultimately it’s the government that has the latitude of monitoring including reining in rogue stations."

Last October the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), a government-funded organization, released a report titled, "Still Behaving Badly." In this report, the KNCHR documented human rights abuses in the lead up to the December elections. Emerging on the top of the list of inveterate performers were vernacular FM stations. Regarding these stations, the report stated that the "use of unsavory language continues unabatedly."

A survey carried out by Strategic Research, a Gallup poll boutique, found out that most vernacular radio stations before the elections gave preference to particular parties favored by their tribal audiences. "There was a lot of hate speech, sometimes thinly veiled," says Caesar Handa, C.E.O of Strategic Research (SR).

Contracted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to monitor media coverage given to the 250 plus registered political parties in Kenya, the locally based Strategic Research singled out four FM stations, broadcasting in the Kalenjin, Kikuyu and Luo dialect, as the most insidious. They included the Kalenjin language station, KASS, both the Kikuyu stations, Inooro and Kameme and the Luo station, notably Lake Victoria, FM stations. 

The December election saw Mwai Kibaki controversially sworn in as President for a last five year term. Kibaki, a Kikuyu, slugged it out with opponent Raila Odinga, a Luo, presumptively thought to have won the election with the able assistance of the Kalenjin community. 

Radio stations played an important role during this time. "The call-in shows were the most notorious. The radio announcers didn’t have the ability to verify or counter check what the callers were going to say," says Handa. For example, some Kalenjin callers on KASS FM made negative comments about other ethnic groups whom they derogatively referred to as ‘settlers’ living in their traditional homeland of the Rift Valley province. Handa recalls vividly what was said: "You heard instances of callers in the radio station saying ‘lets reclaim our birthright. Lets reclaim our land’ which subtly meant that certain communities ought to have their land taken away from them."

One difficulty in monitoring such stations is that the language used was often subtle. On KASS FM, says Handa there were references to the need for ‘people of the milk’ to ‘cut grass’ including complaints that the mongoose had come and ‘stolen our chicken." Traditionally the Kalenjin community, the country’s fourth largest, refers to itself as people of the milk because they are pastoralists by tradition, while mongoose is a reference to Kikuyus who migrated from their ancestral Mt. Kenya region and purchased land in the Rift Valley province.

On other occasions, a caller emphasized the need to "get rid of weeds" which was interpreted as reference to non-ethnic ethnic groups. Also vernacular music was used to raise ethnic tension. Kamanda Mucheke, a senior Human Rights officer with the state funded KNCHR, which also monitored the vernacular FM radio stations during the elections, gives an apt example of the two Kikuyu stations: "Both Kameme and Inooro FM radio stations played songs that talked very badly about ‘beasts from the west,’ a veiled reference to opposition leader Raila Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) colleagues who hailed from the western part of Kenya."

The KNCHR singled out a Kikuyu song sung by Miuga Njoroge, a popular Kikuyu musician broadcast on Inooro FM as worrying. "I understand that it was sponsored by the ‘governing’ pact of the Party of National Unity (PNU)," says Mucheke. Standing on the PNU ticket as a presidential candidate was the septuagenarian Kibaki. "The gist of the song was that Raila is a murderer and power hungry and that he didn’t care about other tribes other than his own. In addition the song alleged that members of the Luo community were lazy for they apparently had a penchant for avoiding soiling of their hands including that they were uncivilized leading to their penchant for hooliganism," adds Mucheke. In another instance, Radio Lake Victoria played a Luo song by D.O Misiani, an iconic Luo crooner, which referred to "the leadership of baboons," a subtle reference to the Kikuyu community.

According to Patrick Lumumba, the Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Research International (CLARION), a local non-governmental organization involved in research and lobbying for enactment of savory laws in Kenya’s constitutional framework, the law governing vernacular FM stations is archaic. "We (CLARION) have petitioned the Minister in charge of the communications docket to have a re-look on the stature governing the operations of vernacular FM stations including publications. If nothing is done to correct the existing anomalies we (Kenyans) shall continue witnessing some communities expropriating land with impunity as witnessed in the recent past and at worst a genocide may very well be stoked by enthusiastic tribal chieftains who mistakenly believe in the supremacy of their ethnic identity. Something needs to be done. These vernacular FM stations surely are not indispensable."


Photos by Tom Maruko, reprinted here under a creative commons license.