Kenyan expert: Laws, codes of conduct and accountability needed to end hate speech

20 Nov 2018

Kenyan expert: Laws, codes of conduct and accountability needed to end hate speech

Filip Andersson

“So, where does impunity fit into our discussion about hate speech?”

“It is an elephant in the room. A society which does not sanction wrongdoing breeds more of the same. Without accountability, everything we are saying about hate speech will remain a mere discussion. A good discussion, perhaps, but it won’t solve any problems.”

Henry Maina, the subject matter expert, is urging the South Sudanese female politician posing the question, and her twenty-odd influential peers in attendance, to take concrete action. Words alone won’t curb what is unanimously understood to have displaced people and scarce resources, and caused devastating and long-lasting physical, financial and emotional damage in war-torn South Sudan, he says.

Words are, however, capable of causing mayhem and wreaking havoc, participants agree. In fact, verbal incontinence which incites hatred, discrimination and violence, it is revealed at the workshop, also amounts to the somewhat elusive concept of hate speech.

In the absence of a universal definition, a six-part “test”, one component of what is known as the Rabat Plan of Action, is commonly used to determine whether a particular statement constitutes hate speech or not. It takes into account the combined weight of the influence and intention of the speaker, the context, the likelihood of the statement or message causing harm or violence, the size, composition and susceptibility of the audience.

According to Henry Maina, the latter element is playing a vital role when it comes to the detrimental effect of hate speech in South Sudan, a country where he believes such use of language to be “insidious”. Here, he argues, illiteracy and a generally low level of education make people more prone to uncritically receive, believe in and act on messages spread by political and other leaders.

“Another factor is that most [South Sudanese] people do not have access to alternative sources of information, and if the sources available teach intolerance you have a high likelihood of seeing manifestations of incitement,” says Mr. Maina, comparing the situation to that of his native Kenya, where there is more competition in terms of opinions, both between and within ethnic groups.

When a single, inciting radio airwave can have such horrific consequences, something must be done, but what? Henry Maina would not have been the expert he is could he not offer an answer to even the thorniest of questions.

“South Sudan does not have a comprehensive national policy against hate speech, and that is something you, political leaders, must give to your country,” he pleads with his captivated audience, invited to the workshop by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan and its Human Rights Division*.

Mr. Maina, East Africa’s Regional Director of the non-governmental organization Article 19 (the one in the universal declaration of human rights that stipulates freedom of expression) elaborates on successful steps taken in some neighbouring countries.

Measures and actions include the adoption of ethical codes of conduct by both parliamentarians and political parties, election campaign pledges to avoid hate speech, a functional judiciary system and high-level politicians leading by example, by not protecting fellow party members who break the rules, he notes. To not only denounce but also issue timely, fact-based statements to counter incidents of inflammatory speech is equally important.

“Since hate speech thrives on emotions, shifting political debates from emotions to real issues and policies is another good way of dealing with the problem,” Mr. Maina adds, commenting that such televised debates between presidential candidates have proved relatively effective elsewhere.

Lily Albino Akol Akol, deputy Minister of Information and Communication, trusts President Salva Kiir, following the signing of the revitalized peace agreement, to lead the way.

“He has declared that we are now moving forward towards healing and reconciliation. Hate speech has taken us nowhere. Healing comes through using the right words and the right language,” the Minister said, affirming that parliament will look into what are “the most appropriate laws to enact for us as a country.”

Ms. Akol was not the only participant touching on the issue of nationhood. Simon Lumori Philip, a member of parliament for the United Democratic Salvation Front Mainstream party, believes that a lack of a national identity lies at the heart of the problem. He blames the fragmentation on the absence of everyday interaction between different communities and ethnic groups.

“It [hate speech] is just a symptom. It is an effect of us, South Sudanese, having lived far apart from each other for too long. We were deliberately divided as we struggled for independence. Now, when we have come out as a nation, we are still not used to see ourselves as one people, and because of poverty we fight over resources instead of uniting.”

*The mandate of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan includes the obligation to monitor, investigate and report on incidents of hate speech and incitement, in cooperation with the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. The Mission frequently engages with different stakeholders across the country by means of a variety of activities, including workshops such as the one described here.