Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kenya: Social Media No Forum for Hate Speech

Reporters criticised for posting material reflecting ethnic bias.
By Judie Kaberia
  • (Photo: Jason Howie/Flickr)
    (Photo: Jason Howie/Flickr)

Media professionals in Kenya are warning journalists to guard against using inflammatory language when expressing their views on social media as they do in their day jobs.

Hate speech in the Kenyan media was blamed for contributing to the widespread violence that followed the presidential election of December 2007. More than 1,100 people were killed and 650,000 others were displaced after the disputed results triggered violence along ethnic lines.

Former broadcaster Joshua Arap Sang is one of three defendants – with President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto – facing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, on charges of orchestrating the chaos. Prosecutors accuse Sang of acting as “the voice of the post-election violence” in the western Rift Valley province.

As Kenya headed toward another presidential election in 2013, the lessons learnt from the bloodshed of 2007 and early 2008 led to a concerted effort to prevent incitement in both traditional and new media. Mainstream publications and broadcasters did in the main avoid the use of hate speech. But individual journalists have come under scrutiny for messages they have posted on social media sites.

“We discovered that there is a trend of disconnect between a journalist as an employee of a media house and a journalist as an independent blogger,” said Haron Mwangi, chief executive officer of the Media Council of Kenya, which monitors the media. “It is very unfortunate when you have… a very popular journalist posting hate messages.”

A broadcast journalist who has contributed to IWPR spoke candidly about his own experience of posting a controversial message on his private Facebook page in the run-up to the March 4 vote. He swiftly removed the message after being criticised by other journalists.

“When I made the post, I was carried away by politics, instead of seeing the journalist in me, I saw myself as an individual and left out the professional part of me,” the reporter, who asked not to be named, said. “I changed – I no longer post such messages on social media. I am cautious, but I see fellow-colleagues still make the mistake.”

He added that the incident reflected the quandary that many Kenyan journalists found themselves in.

“There is a lot of burden, because there is a thin line between yourself [as a professional] and your political or tribal affiliation. This is very challenging for us journalists. This is what we are fighting with – trying to have a balance between you as an individual or you as a professional journalist; yourself coming from a certain community and having a political preference,” he said.

In Kenya, a country with 42 different ethnic groups, divisions come to the surface during periods of heightened tension such as elections.

“The values that we have been socialised in from our young age supersedes the values of our profession, such that if you are socialised as a [ethnic] Luo and you know that Luos and Kikuyus are not good friends, you only hold back from expressing your hate while in the media house – but the moment you get out of that media house, then you go back to what you have known,” the Media Council’s Mwangi said.

Mutuma Rutere, the United Nations special rapporteur on racism, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance in Nairobi, noted the particular complexities of the Kenyan environment.

“The responsibility is much more in a country like Kenya which has such big divisions,” he said. “The March 4 general election period and increased use of hate messages on social media mean that [education] on the role of journalists in a divided country like Kenya is needed.”

One television reporter told IWPR that deep-rooted ethnic affiliations were just as widespread among media professionals as among others.

“Lately, journalists are behaving worse than commoners on the streets,” she said. “Just listen to what some of them say when they are waiting for press conferences to start – ‘Kikuyus and Kalenjins stole our votes… [presidential candidate] Raila [Odinga] is a spoiler… he is disturbing our government’. Now all this hate they speak. Some of them even tweet such hate and their bias on their official social media pages.”

Others say there is a common misperception that the usual professional standards do not apply to content posted on social media sites.

“One of the reasons why journalists use hate speech on social sites is because, like everyone else, journalists don’t see the social media as an extension of traditional media,” Rutere told IWPR.

“They see it as a sudden informal space that is available to them. The readiness and availability of social media space is also a challenge, including the informality of communication.”

The post-election violence of 2007-08 highlighted the role that conventional media can play in fanning conflict, subsequent legislation has attempted to prevent a repeat of that outburst.

These laws, which govern the use of hate speech as well as libel and defamation, apply equally to traditional media and online publications, blogs or posts on social media.

Experts say that unlike print and broadcast media, online outlets have remained largely unregulated. (See also Kenya: Too Little Action on Hate Speech?.)

“There is no proper attention on the social media forms. It is new media and no training has been done,” Rutere said. “There are no clear policies to guide individuals – especially journalists – on social media. Too much focus is on traditional media. The perceived anonymity of social media creates a feeling that rules that regulate traditional media do not apply online.”

Anyone who posts inappropriate material on social media could be in breach of the law. Journalists also risk undermining their own professional credibility.

“Being a journalist means you have the responsibility to mind what you post to your audience, because you represent a personal brand as well as your company’s,” said Mac Otani, a news editor at Royal Media Services, the largest private national broadcaster.

“A journalist should apply the same decorum when online as they do while dealing with actual news when on the job, in terms of objectivity, and not engage in vulgarity that will leave their reputation in disrepute.”

Other experts similarly note the dangers of journalists publicly disclosing their political or ethnic affiliation on social media sites, even if they do so in a private capacity.

“If I display bias like leaning towards a political party, then it will be taken that my work as a journalist or editor will reflect such bias,” Macharia Gaitho, chairman of the Kenya Editors’ Guild, told IWPR.

Gaitho said many journalists remained ignorant of the potential repercussions of posting strong views on issues which they report on.

“They are simply not aware of what perceptions they may be projecting,” he said. “I know some put a disclaimer that ‘the views expressed here are my own’.

“That is not enough, because the public will not make that fine distinction. The public knows you as a representative of your media house. They expect you to be balanced, fair and objective in your work. If you betray any leanings it means they will not trust you to be objective in your work. Whether you are covering a press conference or a political rally you will be seen as a sympathiser of a particular group.”

Some media bodies have put guidelines and company policies in place to regulate how staff use sites like Facebook and Twitter.

“They restrict what their staff posts so that there is no confusion between you the individual and you as a journalist working for a particular publication,” Gaitho said.

But some argue that in-house policies do not go far enough, and want journalists to be properly educated about the challenges posed by social media.

“There is therefore a need for better training to see social media as an extension of more traditional forms of media where same professionalism ought to be exercised by journalists,” Mwangi said.

He believes media groups should monitor the content of employees’ social media pages and address any expressions of prejudice.

“Media organisations should not give comfort in stereotype or identification with own tribes,” he said. “Professionals should remind themselves every day to be on the lookout to ensure there are no prejudices.”

Judie Kaberia is Kenya Coordinator for ReportingKenya.net and Special Projects Reporter at Capital FM in Nairobi.

This article was produced as part of a media development programme by IWPR and Wayamo Communication Foundation in partnership with Capital FM.