Kenya’s top Web-based forum Mashada has become the first victim in the push by the government to crackdown on bloggers, social media and websites spreading ethnical acrimony ahead of the March 4 general election in the country, with reports indicating a number of bloggers could soon be prosecuted.
A new study by Umati Initiative — a project by iHub Research, World policy Institute and Ushahidi — indicates that Mashada.com is a major online forum used by Kenyans in spreading hate speech.
According to Umati Initiative, which is also carrying out a study on the effect of hate speech online, its initial results indicate that Kenyans are attacking each other online on the basis of tribe, gender, religion, politics and sexual orientation.
“Anecdotal evidence from the 2007/2008 cycle suggested that online media played a major role in the post election violence period. However, with no systematic monitoring of the online space at that time, we could not therefore track the trends,” the report said.
“This time around, we wanted to ensure that we captured the trending topics phrases and sentiments online well in advance of the election.”
Prof. Susan Benesch of the World Policy Institute and American University in Washington DC, further warns that hate speech online has potential to escalate election violence.
The shutdown of Mashada forums, known for bringing people of various political views together, is however expected to elicit acrimony from human rights groups who are likely to perceive the action as a clampdown on the freedom of expression and information.
Already, a Nairobi-based lawyer has questioned the legality of online monitoring by the government, saying the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) and the Ministry of Information and Communication lacked legal backing, a fact confirmed by the director of public communications and secretary of the national steering committee on media monitoring Mary Ombara.
Ombara had however maintained that anarchy could not be allowed on social media and that the committee was tackling hate speech using the National Cohesion and Integration Act.
Once the Umati Initiative is complete, the iHub project is expected to be the world’s first collection of hate speech archives and data.
The government in the meantime says it is organising training for journalists to sensitise them on the importance of hate speech, in-depth research and interpretation of opinion polls in the run up to the March 4 general election.