Cellphones spread Kenyans' messages of hate

By Tim Querengesser, Globetechnology.com, February 29, 2008

NAIROBI — As Kenyan teenagers with freshly sharpened machetes searched for people from rival ethnicities earlier this month, text messages encouraging them to deal with enemies "the Rwanda way" flashed across their cellphone screens.

At the time, Kenya's information and communication permanent secretary, Bitange Ndemo, got a different message: block short message services, or SMSs.

Mr. Ndemo had quickly banned live radio and television broadcasts in the violent aftermath of the disputed general election, Dec. 27, 2007. Vernacular radio call-in shows had dehumanized ethnic communities as "weeds" and "animals" in an eerie echo of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when Tutsis were denigrated as "cockroaches."

But with hundreds dead, more than 300,000 on the run and thousands of similar messages jamming mobile networks, he chose not to block SMSs. "There were so many stranded people in the forests who were sending SMSs to their relatives," said Mr. Ndemo. "So, had we shut it down, we would have caused more damage than what we had intended to prevent."

In the wake of Kenya's recent chaos, some observers warn the cellphone could play a larger role in future ethnic conflicts in Africa if its omnipresence and the vulnerability to abuse of SMS technology are not countered with better laws.

The numbers are striking. Mobile phones are everywhere in Africa, despite its relative poverty. In fact, Kibera, Kenya's largest slum, is one of the country's biggest customers for mobile airtime.

And demand keeps growing. In 1999, one in 2,300 had a mobile phone. By 2004, it was one in 10. Now, it is one in four; of the nearly one billion people in Africa, nearly 100 million have a mobile.

The technology has pole-vaulted many African countries beyond their crumbling infrastructure and into the information age. But it has also exposed them to risks. No other continent struggles with ethnic conflict like Africa. With SMS the preferred method to communicate (they're cheaper than calls) and with cellphone-happy Kenya now picking up the pieces after ethnic war, the potential for SMS to incite hate is coming into focus.

"It's just a button you push," said Kamanda Mucheke, a senior officer with Kenya's human rights commission. Since 2005, the organization has been monitoring electronic messaging, like e-mail and SMS, for hate speech.

During Kenya's constitutional referendum in 2005, politicians preyed on tribal hatreds to sway votes. At the time, vernacular radio was the medium most infected with hate speech.

This time around, tribe was all important and SMS took the lead. "It's easier to use SMS than radio," said Mr. Mucheke. "There's more censorship on radio. There are no controls at the moment over SMS. That made it the most efficient and easiest medium to proliferate hate speech."

The moral block people have to spreading hate is easily overcome when a simple push of a button is all that's needed, adds Mr. Mucheke. Indeed, friends became conduits of the messages in post-election Kenya, as they asked readers to forward them on to their buddies and families. Hate hit viral proportions.

The message weren't only from people forwarding them along, but also came by the thousands from bulk SMS service companies.

The most infamous of the screeds stated, simply, "41 versus 1" — a nod to the 42 tribes of Kenya and the belief that one of them, the Kikuyu, of which President Mwai Kibaki is a member, has been hoarding the country's riches at the exclusion of others. The unwritten message: it's payback time.

Others were indecipherable to most people. Much like messages over vernacular radio, SMSs dehumanizing people as "spots" to be cleaned were written in tribal languages, said Mr. Mucheke. "Most of these things are done in metaphors. When I say 'Our people' in Kikuyu (a traditional language), it is meaningless to most, but it has a meaning to some people. There is nothing criminal, but the effect is powerful."

That raises concerns about regulation. Last year, the human rights commission drafted a content bill that would make hate speech an offense. Just months before hte poll, it was thrown out by parliamentarians as a potential limit on their freedom of speech during the election campaign, he said.

It isn't clear what effect a law would have had in stopping the hateful SMSs, said Mr. Mucheke. But the "culture of impunity" in its absence acts as an incentive for people to ignore good sense and forward or create messages, he said.

Caesar Handa, director of Strategic Research, a media monitoring firm in Nairobi that has kept its ears to the airwaves, agreed that a lack of laws and a litany of messages over SMS and radio airwaves are one of the reasons behind the Kenya's recent violence.

As Mr. Ndemo surveys a list of 1,700 individuals who forwarded multiple messages, he concedes Kenya does not have a law to crack down on those who instigate hate. The country's penal code is being used to take one owner of a bulk SMS service to court, though the amount of evidence required is staggering, he said.

A new law is planned to be introduced in the coming months, but Mr. Ndemo foresees resistance from owners of media companies and civil society.

Civil society, however, seems pleased something might change."We are hoping once the dust has settled over the crisis that it [a content law] will now be passed," said Mr. Mucheke. "It's unfortunate we had to go through this first."

While the impact of the messages in Kenya's chaos isn't clear, their potential to influence is without question. At the peak, some were receiving up to 50 hateful messages per day, overwhelming people in a country that sends more than 10 million daily, or four billion per year.

The written word also carries legitimacy here. As a resident of Kisumu noted after several people displayed an SMS claiming the country's largest newspaper was transporting machetes to start a war: "It must be somewhat true, it's written down."

What's also clear is that bringing anyone to justice will be difficult if the current system remains unchanged.

Anonymity is built in to the networks. Mr. Mucheke was one of the first to buy a mobile when Kenya's cellphone boom erupted in the late 1990s. On top of the massive cost for the phone, he had to be cleared by the country's internal security agency before he could make a call.

Now, phone lines on subscriber-identity-module (SIM) cards are offered for free on Nairobi's streets by competing networks. New phones from China sell for less than $30. Unlike Canadian cell networks, contracts are rare. Most buy air time on scratch cards. With an anonymous line, phone and airtime, anyone can send an SMS to anyone else without fear of being exposed.

The structure holds true for much of Africa.

But this anonymity has unexpectedly positive consequences, too. Civil society groups in Uganda have sent out viral SMS messages urging people to have themselves tested for HIV/AIDS. The program's startling success is attributed to the the anonymity built into the SMS campaign. And Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe may have censored of the country's media into oblivion, but even he struggles to prevent critical news headlines from circulating on cellphones.

In the interim, as a law is crafted, Mr. Ndemo has ordered Kenya's three cell networks to filter all SMSs for key phrases or words. He writes "Kikuyu ... kill" on a piece of paper as an example. "My headache is to find which is the new terminologies they are using," he said.

Mr. Mucheke doesn't hold out much hope for such an approach. Hate-filled metaphors will always defy censorship, he said. In the end, he agrees with Mr. Ndemo's decision to keep SMSs flowing. "The SMS is innocent. You have to address the root causes."