Hate speech is often aimed at instigating harm or violence against another person or group of people. Its intention is to entrench hostility and deep dislike, in such a way as to justify prejudice and even encourage violence against others.
It includes the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, and the publication, display and distribution of any threatening, abusive or insulting written material, as well as of plays, visual images, or any media programming.
Galvanising of electoral support and creation of voter and party strongholds in Kenya is mostly done along ethnic lines. As such, the use of ethnic differences, negative stereotypes and charged histories as core ingredients in hate speech is a common political strategy.
One main way this has happened before is to use names of animals or inanimate things in vernacular to refer to political rivals. Historical evidence in Kenya and elsewhere shows that this leads to dehumanisation, increasing the likelihood that harm can be deployed against their targets.
Article 33 of the Constitution warns that any right to free speech does not extend to hate speech. Additionally, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, a statutory agency under an Act of the same name, details punishments for those found guilty. These are good first steps, but law alone is not enough: there are still several challenges in prosecuting hate speech.
One is that not all categories are defined by law. Ethnic hatred is quite well defined, but a majority of hateful slurs still fall within blurred subjective lines. This makes it difficult, for example, to label the insults hurled at women political candidates on the campaign trail as hate speech.
Hate speech is part and parcel of daily life. It should, therefore, also be discussed outside of elections, and prosecuted more, so that there is a growing wealth of public and judicial knowledge and understanding of the harm it causes.
Further, impunity has seen some powerful individuals get away with electoral and political hate speech. This has weakened public resistance because people see any complaints against it as useless and futile. The electoral and cohesion commissions, as well as stakeholders, should pay critical attention during this already charged election period and follow through with adequate penalties.
Finally, Kenyans themselves must combat hate speech whenever they can. Even just telling someone “No, you can’t say that” can defuse and dilute the more immediate effects of hate speech in schools, homes, churches and workplaces, among others. It is time to remind ourselves that every time hate has been planted, people paid for it with their lives. Beyond the duties of the state, we can also combat hate speech in our own small ways, to increase the likelihood of a safer and less violent election period for all.
The writer is a policy analyst. [email protected]