Vernacular radio fuelled ethnic clashes

Studies on the post-election violence that killed close to 1,000 Kenyans show that vernacular radio stations incited ethnic animosity during the 2007 electoral campaigns.

“There was a lot of hate speech, sometimes thinly veiled. The vernacular radio stations have perfected the art,” Caesar Handa, chief executive of Strategic Research, told IRIN News. His company was contracted to monitor media coverage given to the main political parties in Kenya in the run-up to the 27th December presidential and parliamentary elections.

Among the FM stations that Handa singled out for criticism were the Kalenjin-language station Kass FM, the Kikuyu stations Inooro and Kameme and the Luo station, Lake Victoria FM.

Meanwhile, a human rights body has recommended that vernacular stations be warned of possible criminal prosecutions before domestic and international courts. The Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights is urging Western governments to subsidize the acquisition of digital audio delay equipment to remove hate speech and profanity by callers.

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.”

Vernacular music sowed the seeds of ethnic tensions. The two Kikuyu stations, Kameme and Inooro, played songs “talking very badly about beasts from the west”, a veiled reference to opposition leader Raila Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) colleagues, who come from western Kenya, said Mr Handa.

Radio Lake Victoria played a Luo-language song by the late D. O. Misiani, which referred to “the leadership of baboons.”

KNCHR singled out a Kikuyu song by Miuga Njoroge, broadcast on Inooro FM, as worrying. “I hear it was sponsored by the Party of National Unity (PNU),” said Kamanda Mucheke of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR). “The gist of it is that Raila Odinga is a murderer. He is power hungry. He doesn’t care about other tribes. He only cares about his tribe, the Luo community. It says that Luos are lazy. They don’t work. They are hooligans. That when they rent houses, they don’t pay rent.”

Mr Handa heard Kalenjin callers on Kass FM making negative comments about other ethnic groups, who they call “settlers,” in their traditional homeland, Rift Valley Province. “You hear cases of ‘Let’s reclaim our land. Let’s reclaim our birthright’. Let’s claim our land means you want to evict people [other ethnic communities] from the place,” said Handa.

One difficulty in monitoring such stations is that the language used is often quite subtle and obscure. “The call-in shows are the most notorious,” said Handa. “The announcers don’t really have the ability to check what the callers are going to say.”

On Kass FM, there were references to the need for “people of the milk” to “cut grass” and complaints that the mongoose has come and “stolen our chicken”, according to Mucheke from the KNCHR, which monitored hate speech in the countdown to the elections. The Kalenjin call themselves people of the milk because they are pastoralists by tradition and the mongoose is a reference to Kikuyus who have bought land in Rift Valley, Mucheke said.

By allowing such sentiments to be voiced on air, observers say, they earn a degree of legitimacy that can be used to justify attacks on other ethnic groups. Many Kenyans, used to making derogatory statements about other ethnic groups, do not realize the implications of what they are doing, according to Linda Ochiel, principal human rights officer at KNCHR.

“People treat it as a big joke. They don’t know such stereotypes eventually get fixated in people’s minds when they begin to kill people. It’s one of the triggers of violence in this country. When we begin to dehumanize other Kenyans and depict them as animals, it’s easy to take a machete and hack them to death,” she told IRIN.

Back in the year 2000, former President Daniel arap Moi warned on the dangers of vernacular radio stations. Ironically, it was during Moi’s tenure as Kenya’s second President that the country witnessed a heightened sense of tribal xenophobia.

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.” In response to Mr Moi’s threats, Kameme quickly called a press conference and its Managing Director, Rose Kimotho, assured all that Kameme will continue to stay well clear of politics. Subsequently, the Moi Administration went ahead to launch an official vernacular FM station, Coro, that also broadcasted in the Kikuyu language.

The controversy over vernacular radio became a major issue in Rwanda during the genocide of 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.

The role of vernacular radio in Kenya’s violence has sparked great interest in international media circles. Prof. Frank Chalk of the Montreal Institute of Genocide and Human Rights has recommended stern measures for vernacular radio:

“We must convey to owners and managers of vernacular radio stations that the content of hate broadcasts and the names of those responsible for putting them on the air are currently being recorded, analyzed, and preserved for use in future criminal prosecutions before domestic and international courts as well as the application of other penalties such as placement on watch lists, freezing of overseas assets, and severe limitations on visas and travel.”

BBC News
Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights (MIGS)
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (IRIN News)
Toward Freedom website


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