Text Messages Used to Incite Violence in Kenya

Kenya is reflecting on a month of violence following a disputed presidential election in December. One feature of the bloody crisis has especially shocked many ordinary Kenyans is how the cell phone became a deadly tool of violence.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's jump across the map of Africa now, from West Africa to East Africa, where Kenya is reflecting on a month of violence and vendettas and ethnic killings, all of this following a disputed presidential vote. Turmoil rocked, it would have been the most stable and prosperous country in east Africa and one feature of the crisis especially shocks many Kenyans, the use of text messaging as a tool of ethnic hatred. We have more this morning from NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

QUIST-ARCTON: The root for the delivery of hate text messages in Kenya was the regular one via mobile phone.

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QUIST-ARCTON: But the messages have been chilling.

(Reading) Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyus have stolen our children's future. Hope of removing them through the ballot has been stolen. We must deal with them the way they understand, violence. We must dominate them. That was just one of many texts swirling around Kenya during the crisis.

Now let me explain. President Mwai Kibaki belongs to the Kikuyu tribe, which has long dominated politics and business here in Kenya. Kibaki's main political rival, Raila Odinga, says he was cheated out of the presidency in a fraudulent village count. Now Odinga is a Luo. The contested election results led to an explosion of violence and killings that turned distinctly tribal very early on putting ethnic groups supporting the president, against those behind the opposition leader. The same bitter divisions were mirrored in many text messages. Here's another.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) We say no more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luos and Kalus(ph) you know at work or in your estates, or elsewhere in Nairobi, plus where and how their children go to school. We will give you numbers to text this information.

QUIST-ARCTON: Texts were received by targeted groups and individuals and monitored by human rights campaigners and mobile phone companies. Many text messages, both subtle and those that were blatantly provocative, were sent out in mass text mailing lists. Some were homegrown, but others came from overseas, according to telecommunications officials.

The messages were so prolific that the Kenyan authorities tried to counter them with their own nationwide text message on January 3rd, four days after the outbreak of violence. Unidentified Woman: The government of Kenya advises that the sending of hate message inciting violence is an offense that could result in prosecution.

Michael Joseph, CEO of Safaricom, a leading cell phone operator here in Kenya, said the government considered shutting down the text messaging services of the mobile phone networks. Joseph said the phone companies resisted and offered an alternative, messages of peace and unity.

Mr. MICHAEL JOSEPH (CEO, Safaricom): Originally we sent out a message which basically said, please don't send off any hate messages, you know, and this is against the law. But then we toned it down and we sent out a peace message to all of our customers, our nine million customers.

In this message we said, in the interest of peace, we appeal to Kenyans to embrace each other in the spirit of patriotism and exercise a strength to restore calm to our nation. We added another tag line, which said, prevent trouble, choose peace. And we sent it in both Swahili and in English.

QUIST-ARCTON: But that didn't stop the text messages says Linda Ochiel. She's the chief human rights officer at the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights, a state sponsored institution that has been monitoring hate speech in the run up to December's disputed presidential vote. Text messages were not the only form of hate speech.

Ms. LINDA OCHIEL (Chief Human Rights Officer; Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights): Members of Parliament and campaigners used a lot of hate speech. They dehumanized communities, calling them names, names of animals, or objects, using jokes that were derogatory and making people look like they were not human beings so that the killings - the killings that have been happening went on for a long time. People killing their neighbors because they have been dehumanized. So it's become very easy for them to kill people that they knew.

QUIST-ARCTON: Playwright and author Binyavanga Wainana said that despite warning against passing along hate text, Kenyans did so anyway.

Mr. BINYAVANGA WAINANA (Playwright, Author): People were warned form forwarding them because what happens is that - and this is where it gets very dangerous is that people get something saying, we used to slash them like grass to get rid of them and now you do to remove them by the roots.

One of the problems that happens though, is that civil citizens who receive them, get addicted to the drama of forwarding them. And that becomes as much of a problem as the idea that people are generating these kind of - you want to call it communities of hate by closing circles around, you know, this kind of escalating rhetoric.

QUIST-ARCTON: Linda Ochiel, the human rights officer, says Kenya must prosecute those who insight violence being it through hate speech, radio, songs, letters, e-mails, or hate texts.

Ms. OCHIEL: We are saying that hate speech is one of the things that has terrorized communities in Kenya along ethnic lines and led in one way or another to the violence that is happening in the country. If we had doubts with impunity, and we want - if we had top state speech legislation that prohibits hate speech in Kenya, then this sort of infighting and inflammatory messages that were going around, would not have happened.

QUIST-ARCTON: A painful lesson Kenyans are learning to live with. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Nairobi.

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