A Recap of #UmatiForum: The Many Faces of Online Hate Speech in Kenya

By Nanjira Sambuli
iHub Research
  Published 06 Mar 2014
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Towards the end of January, iHub Research, with generous support from Internews, hosted the #UmatiForum: The Many Faces of Online Hate Speech in Kenya, a public conversation on the nature of online hate speech in Kenya. The Umati Project has been studying this to better understand the hate speech dynamic in Kenya and how it makes its way online, and the forum was a necessary step to share back findings from the eventful 2013 year, and the online speech reactions to the many twists and turns that were in the Kenyan calendar. Much was said, proposed and argued, but above all, we believe the forum was a starting point of a reflection process on the power and impact of speech: good or bad, as it plays out online and translates to offline ‘bar talk’, and/or vice versa. For those who attended the forum, once again, thank you for making it a great success, and please feel free to share your reflections and any questions that may have been paused due to time. We are also setting up an online Umati Forum, a space where netizens can reflect, share on their thoughts on how speech (good, bad, dangerous) comes to be, the many forms it takes as more and more people get online and new avenues of influence emerge (beyond politicians, religious leaders etc), and more importantly exchange ideas on how we can achieve a more cohesive Kenya in which we don’t view or address each other along age-old stereotypes that influence hateful speech against groups and as seen in the country’s history, contributed to violent reactions to elections. Below are some key highlights from the discussion, and that we are hoping can continue being discussed.  


  1. The NCIC follows the Alternative Dispute Resolution provision as per the constitution to address hate speech offences, as was in the case against Chirau Ali Mwakwere, where he apologized to those he had offended, and the case subsequently dismissed/dropped. Is such a move counter-effective? Does it embolden hate speech propagation, once it is known to be an option to 'resolve' a hate speech offence case?
  2. What lessons have Kenyan media learnt from the outcome of the 2007 election, the ensuing violence, and the role they have been perceived to have played?What is the media’s responsibility in triggering or curbing hate speech, beyond the news (and money) value that some of the triggers eg politicians’ names and ethnic group mentions on headlines hold? As Aisha Ali said, media and the public have a symbiotic relationship, because they (media) need the public goodwill to do their job. Case-in-point: media needed the people's support when the'government came after them', and therefore they have a responsibility to citizens over and above making money.
  3. Does referring to Members of Parliament as 'MaVultures' (vultures were defended vehemently) and more recently as 'MPigs' constitute hate speech? Kenyan law does not recognize politicians as a group that can be targeted through such speech, but neither does it recognize gender, sexual preference, religion nor any other group category; it only mentions 'ethnic hatred': hatred againsta group of persons defined by reference to colour,race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic ornational origins. (NCI Act, s.13(3) )
  4. We asked Boniface Mwangi whether he considers such terms to constitute hate speech; he referred to cultural folklore, Animal Farm in particular, justifying that it’s about the traits that MPs showcase that relate to the animal analogies. “You can’t hide behind culture or hate speech when someone describes you for who you are,” he said. Boniface, however, clarified that his has not been a campaign preaching hate; instead it's about advocating for behavioural change by asking our leaders-elect to ‘stop behaving like greedy pigs’. But what is the difference when such analogies are used to refer to people based on other group belongings? What makes it ‘acceptable’ to compare people who constitute a political group, to animals, but not ethnic groups or any other groupings to which people belong? ? Is it more acceptable to target and criticize those in power, vs a minority who may not be able to fight back?
  5. There's a normalization of discrimination (especially along gender lines) that has erstwhile existed offline and now manifests online. There also exists a culture of intolerance in Kenya complicating integration and cohesiveness, that needs to be addressed.
  6. Is there a thin line between hate speech and cyberbullying, and where/how do we draw it? (The example of the online attacks that renowned radio presenter, Caroline Mutoko, has come under were referenced. Has she come under constant attack because she's prominent, or because she is a woman who happens to be prominent? Here, it was explained that women are the largest 'minority group' , and that attacks against Caroline easily cross from cyberbullying to hate speech as a result).
  7. We also got a first hand account from Dennis Itumbi who has previously been summoned by NCIC over 'alleged hate speech on his Facebook account'. He passionately narrated his version of events, highlighting some of the shortcomings in the NCIC's operating mechanisms. "You cannot conduct cybercrime investigations using analog methods," he said, while referring to NCIC's flaws in digital evidence recovery.
  8. How do we achieve cohesion in Kenya, over and above curbing hate speech, which is a symptom of a bigger issue? "We cannot keep coexisting when we are litigating," an NCIC official reminded us.
  9. Way forward?Online community policing, the responsibility of online communities towards a cohesive society was discussed. This has already been observed in the Kenyan online space, and we have highlighted some examples in our Umati reports.
If we figure out how to coexist online , it may influence/translate to how we address our other offline issues. As was rightfully said, Kenya’s online space is rather fascinating, and we are very interested in leaning on the community’s Most Unexceptional practices as we scale the Umati project to other countries. We look forward to a continuation of the conversation. Please feel free to share your thoughts, questions and comments below!
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