Women in the Crosshairs as Hate Speech Puts African Media under Pressure

Freedom of expression comes with great responsibility and media practitioners must draw the line on what can and cannot be said in public or printed. The lack of responsible journalism, especially when it fuels hate speech and propaganda, has been a major contributor to turmoil in Africa.

Though hate speech in the African media tends to take cultural, political, economic and social dimensions, it is the political that generates most heat. History has proved that elections across the continent are fertile ground for hate speech and conflict.

The Rwanda genocide in 1994, Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008, Burundi’s marred elections of 2015, South Sudan’s unending conflict and the Arab spring are some instances of how media contributed to the escalation of violence.

In Kenya, politicians have sought to manipulate community grievances to whip up support in every contested election since the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1992. In the post-election period of 2007–2008, when allegations of electoral fraud erupted in violence, more than 1,000 people were killed, 3,500 were injured and approximately 350,000 displaced.

The broadcaster Joshua Arap Sang was charged with using the Kalenjin-language radio station Kass FM to incite hatred of the Kikuyu and with incitement to violence. In 2011 he was charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity stemming from his actions at that time. However, in April 2016 the ICC terminated the case against him.

The failure of this prosecution may have sent the wrong kind of signals because Kenyan politicians have taken it as licence to continue hurling insults and even to call for the assassination of opposing leaders.

Tolerance and mutual respect should be the hallmark of mature democracy. In South Africa xenophobic violence against migrants may have been interpreted as defending economic interests, but recent calls for the murder of white people by Julius Malema, controversial leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters party, is a reminder that racism is alive there. Malema’s hate speech extended to attacking a BBC journalist at a rally.

Hundreds have lost lives and millions have been displaced in the South Sudan conflict that has pitted supporters of President Salvar Kiir (Dinka) against those loyal to former Vice-President Dr Riek Machar (Nuer) in what is often viewed as ethnic conflict. Much reporting has taken sides, making it difficult for people to trust and rely on media for objective information.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that a rise in hate speech and ethnic incitement is likely to spark mass atrocities in the country, which has been ravaged by war since 2013. In 2014, rebels used a radio station in Bentiu to call on men from one community to sexually attack women from another.

Hate speech has been repeatedly used as a weapon of gender-based violence meant to intimidate women into silence. Though Africa boasts a rich cultural heritage that has often evolved to embrace contemporary practice, gender biases persist. When culture is used as an argument, it is usually to maintain privilege.

Media have contributed to gender discrimination and hate speech that is characterised by stereotyping. The first yardstick for judging women seeking political office therefore becomes morality, regardless of how male counterparts may behave.

A recent television programme, hosted by an internationally acclaimed Kenyan journalist, saw the most embarrassing and humiliating debate in recent politics. A man seeking political office used vulgar language against his female opponent, hurling sexual insults over an hour-long interview. He referred to the female aspirant as a “socialite bimbo” who had planned “a 30-days sex holiday if her team wins”.

Though the (male) moderator wanted the public to believe he was helpless, outraged observers argued that he appeared to enjoy the aggression and humiliation. This was blatant disrespect for women, as the attacks were intended to harm and dehumanise the female participant. The attacker, the medium, the audience reach, the content and the context meet the five-point test designed by the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) as guidelines for journalists to identify hate speech and thus demonstrate responsibility in their work.

The public comments that followed the programme took on gender undertones as opposed to discussing substantive issues that matter to the electorate. The fear now is that similar scenarios will characterise the media in Kenya prior to the August 2017 general elections if no decisive action is taken against the media house responsible in this case.

But even as media are criticised over channeling hate speech it is important to understand that they are caught in a bind. Anyone can publish via social media and the rush to publish without checking the facts has often led to journalists being depicted as irresponsible and greedy. Attacks often follow women writers online, castigating them and tearing into their stories.

One female writer with the Nation in Nairobi shied away from following up a story on empowerment for women by the state-run Information and Communication Technology Authority (ICT) when an analysis she did on women’s rights online was attacked by a reader who called it “another of the feminist-biased stories”. The conversation that followed took a men-v-women argument as opposed to understanding the role that ICT plays. The situation can only get worse because most countries in Africa do not have cyber laws that deal with online offences.

The media in Africa are viewed almost entirely as commercial entities, as opposed to services that contribute to the public good. And financial objectives, regulation and professionalism are under threat. The increase in investors after the airwaves in Africa were opened up permitted politicians to control frequencies for political ends. Instead of introducing diverse and dynamic ideas that will grow the sector, the focus has been on safeguarding their space and ensuring their opponents do not get a look-in.

The dominance of male politicians in media ownership has pushed women to the periphery, and only left the very determined to navigate the murky political waters. Only one women sits on the board of the Media Owners Association in Kenya. Until more women can determine the future of media in the country, gender inequality will continue.

While editorial and financial independence continue to determine good journalism, African media have lacked professionalism. The emergence of digital media has caused panic as media houses cut down on staff. The Kenyan mainstream media have laid off many staff in the past year, with women the first to go.

Training has also failed journalism, considering that there is no standard curriculum such as applies in other professions like law, medicine and architecture. Training institutions should understand the need to develop curricula specific to online or digital requirements. Infiltration by quacks has greatly compromised standards.

Kenya Woman

Erik Hersman (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Criteria for employing radio announcers depend on mastery of a language rather than professional training that includes ethics. Regulation remains a major task in most countries, considering political interests and the pace of standardisation. The Media Council in Kenya is tasked to regulate media but has no powers to prosecute cases of hatemongering, for example.

Digital platforms have further complicated matters, adding spontaneity, ambiguity and an unchecked freedom of expression. Though web-based media have made government control more difficult, they have also opened the floodgates to falsehoods that spread much faster than on traditional media.

Research carried out by the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) in collaboration with the web foundation Women’s Rights Online in 2016 established that women are 50% less likely to be internet-connected than men with similar levels of education and income.

The EJN partnered with media organisations, journalists’ unions – including Africa Media Initiative (AMI), the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT), the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), East African Journalists Association (EAJA), and others – to launch a campaign, Turning the Page of Hate in Africa in Kigali in April 2014, during the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide.

Subsequent workshops and training have been carried out in Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. Much progress has been made, using the EJN five-point test, in aiding professionals across the continent to identify hate speech and in adhering to professional ethics in eliminating incitement to violence. But much more needs to be done to entrench ethics in training institutions and in media house practices, and particularly to confront the challenges that come with technological advances.

Main photo: Rwandan Peacekeepers serving in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) commemorated the Rwandan Genocide in Juba, honouring the victims of the genocide in Rwanda of 1994 – UNMISS (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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