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I had the pleasure of helping out on a talk given by Tole Nyatta a few days ago. Tole is a volunteer at Pamoja FM, a community radio station in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi. He’s in Washington DC to receive a media leadership award from Internews Network.

Tole Nyatta at mic


Kibera was the site of a great deal of violence during the post-election conflict in January and February, and Pamoja played a large role in trying to maintain or restore peace in the neighborhood. Pamoja was profiled in the Christian Science Monitor in January; saying:

“We’re doing news, but we don’t incite people,” says Mohammad Abubakr, a hip young volunteer who runs the midday reggae show, aimed at Kibera’s youth. Normally, Mr. Abubakr’s show covers topics such as the need to avoid drugs, gangs, and teen pregnancy, but since the political crisis, Pamoja has become a clearing house for the sort of basic information that people would need after a hurricane or other natural disaster.

“We don’t tell them [who should be] president, and make them want to fight,” says Abubakr. “We tell them the situation in Kibera, which shops are open, where there is food, where there is fuel, where they can buy airtime for their cellphones.”

A good deal has been written on the role of the media in post-election violence in Kenya, with policy recommendations, as well as several projects to work with Kenyan media on conflict-sensitive journalism, how to report on conflict, and support for coverage of the National Accord and Reconcilation Act’s implementation.

Internews conducted research and a ran a series of workshops around the country to “train[ ] journalists and presenters to constructively tell the stories of those affected by the violence in their struggle to restart their lives.”

International Media Support produced several reports and policy recommendations, and also created a manual on conflict sensitive reporting for Kenya by Ross Howard.

The BBC Wold Service Trust produced a policy briefing on the role of media.

All three organizations present detailed and sophisticated recommendations focusing on strategic engagement with media on training, technical capacity, and the skills to cover conflict. They bemoan a reflexive attitude on the part of governments and some in the international community to restrict or ban speech in crises, and to compare incidents of possible hate speech and incitement with the Rwanda genocide. The BBC says:

Most donors and development actors have attached a low priority to media and media support issues in the context of development and particularly in fragile states. Neither funding nor research in this area have (with some exceptions) been considered significant strategic priorities. A generic and generally rhetorical commitment to the importance of a free media has sufficed.

The underlying reason for this is a perspective that liberalized media undermine fragile and weak states, and that speech freedoms and information access should in certain contexts be restricted in favor of support to the state. This notion implies that a non-liberal or authoritarian media system is somehow more desirable, and suggests that those media support a broadly unbiased public good. In reality, as in the Kenyan situation, such media are nearly always aligned with the party in power. The abstract idea of supporting a “state” in fact means support for the ruling faction. International support for the state is hence interpreted locally as support for the ruling power.

Such ideas also presume that a country’s information space can still be controlled. Kenya, as with recent examples in Pakistan, Burma, and China, demonstrate that people simply turn to other communications technologies in the face of restrictions on media.

Based on Tole’s experience at Pamoja, together with the above reports, here’s a summary of some lessons on media and incitement in Kenya:

1) Banning of vernacular media is short-sighted.

The Kenyan government is considering a ban on vernacular radio stations, claiming they incited violence. However, the assumption that the media drive conflict is simplistic. Many vernacular stations sought to support peace, but were threatened by their community when they tried. Hate speech came from call-in programs and to a lesser extent, DJs – rather than from journalists. Reporting could be shallow or one-sided, but did not generally incite.

At Radio Lake Victoria for example, the station tried to program peace media. Crowds protested and forced journalists to support their movement, saying, ‘you represent our community, so you need to represent our views. A call for peace is akin to a call for the validation of the elections.’ One journalist told Tole, “If I don’t represent them, then I’m gonna get lynched.”

Lessons: Stations need:

  • Ongoing relationships across ethnic, communal, political divides, and media social networks outside of identification community;

  • Training for media in how to cover conflict, physical security.

2) Rwanda is not the automatic comparison point.

Attempts to use the experience of Rwanda as an excuse for censorship, vernacular language restrictions, or cutting off live programming ultimately will lead to new problems.


  • Hate speech laws are often used to deny rights to minority groups – an excuse for repression. Selective enforcement is one element of this; biased government, another.
  • Censorship of hate speech does not alter the fact of hatred – possibly it simply drives that hatred into other channels.
  • Blaming speech for incitement while not addressing other aspects of discrimination and underlying issues that cause violence simply scapegoats the media. Security comes from dialogue, relationships with neighbors, and the resolution of underlying issues.
  • In countries without functioning rule of law or weak judiciaries, hate speech laws are problematic because they can’t be properly adjudicated.

3) The KBC approach – broadcasting feel-good stories that flatter the government – is short-sighted and even harmful.

KBC misstatements about the security of a given town resulted in some Kikuyu returning home, only to be slaughtered.

Lesson: Managing the message during an emergency can have unforeseen consequences – the idea that peace messages are solutions in every context is naïve if not given in the context of accurate information.

4) Local-global continuum.

The Kenyan government banned live broadcasting and aggressive coverage of the elections, and of violence. This was based on a narrow, national vision of media, whereby information space could be controlled. However:

  • International broadcasters (BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera) showed more violence than local stations, upending the Kenyan stations’ caution;
  • Because of the ban, international programming couldn’t be countered by more specific, up-to-date local perspectives, creating a rash of rumor and supposition;
  • SMS messages and Internet provided avenues for information to race around the country, repeating what was seen on the international broadcasts, but with distortions and lack of clarity.
  • National governments do not control information spaces; attempting control simply causes people to seek information elsewhere, on other networks.

5) Question of incitement and authority of media – new v. old.

There were numerous incidents of highly volatile messages sent via SMS texting and Internet. Tole’s perspective on whether those messages resonated:

  • With mass media, people tend to believe. They associate media with authority, facts, and information. However, relationship is from distant speaker to diffuse audiences and thus effects are difficult to identify.

  • With SMS texting and email, people are more skeptical. They question the validity of the information. On the other hand, the contact is often personal, via friends and community networks, so there is a more direct kind of social pressure.

6) Digital Media.

Digital media are increasingly popular in Kenya. Seven million cell phone users and an active online community, with sites such as the blog aggregator Kenyaunlimited, or Both SMSs and blogs had a mix of peace messages and virulent speech. Mashada had to shut its forum the end of January due to the volume of nastiness. was created to track conflict, verify events, create timelines, and provide space for dialogue. However, Tole says that Ushahidi was not well known among community media outlets. Such efforts are valuable but needs more outreach, awareness. As with international broadcasting, even services that reach a relatively small elite can have an effect, due to connectivity provided by cellular phone networks.

7) Truth and justice v. peace and reconciliation.

Journalism community describes their response to the crisis as a “failure” to uphold their watchdog role, and say attempts to calm the violence conflicts with their journalistic obligations. The IMS reports get into this in some detail.

Lessons: Journalists and media outlets are unprepared to report on mass violence in their own communities. They need:

  • Editorial guidance and resources.
  • Security (both training and resources).
  • Long-term perspective on investigative journalism into underlying issues.

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I was at a lecture recently at Columbia University’s SIPA school, at an event thrown by Anne Nelson, who runs a project on Media in International Conflict, and is the former director of CPJ. Anne’s got a panel together to talk about Radio Okapi, The UN’s radio initiative in the Congo, managed by Fondation Hirondelle.

Her speakers are Jean-Marie Etter, head of Hirondelle, Martin Sebujangwe, Okapi’s editor-in-chief, and Shira Loewenberg, director of the Outward Bound Center for Peacebuilding and a former UN information officer, and Sandra Coliver of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Anne asks us to look at a “compelling topic not adequately explored in the past” – how the role of local media can play a positive, rather than negative, role in conflict, and asserts that too often the media is viewed as a negative force in conflict – citing Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, and other cases of incitement. The presumed owner of these assumptions is, it emerges, the UN and others influential in post-conflict peacebuilding policy.

Arguably, this positive has been explored in theory and practice in many situations already, especially in the former Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, and various Asian countries – Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan come to mind as examples. But tonight is primarily about the Congo, and other Hirondelle projects. Hirondelle often works with state broadcasters or state surrogates, and Okapi is an example of that. It’s local in the sense that it broadcasts on the FM band in eight locations around Congo, with local programming streams in each, plus dozens of repeaters around the country, but it’s designed as a surrogate public broadcaster under UN mandate, and it claims a national reach. It’s not locally owned or operated, and funding comes almost exclusively from external sources, primarily the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, MONUC. The DRC, it turns out, also has over 300 local FM radio stations, most not part of the Okapi network, but with many taking Okapi programming.

The funding source turns out to be the okapi in the in the lecture hall (to mangle a cliche) for the evening’s discussion – Radio Okapi has cannot exist without external funding sources, says Sebujanwe. The implication – control over content and independence of action for the station and its journalists, and whether the UN should be able to assert control over content. Nelson’s example – UN peacekeeping soldiers committing crimes, and the UN rep. asking the station not to cover the story. The question turns, for each speaker, on a couple of key points:

– from Etter, the insistence that “strict” journalism, the enforcement of codes of ethics within the newsroom, the independence of information, and the credibility of the broadcaster provide a platform for a national dialogue, and should be considered integral to the peacebuilding effort.

– from Sebujangwe, the need to build and maintain professionalism for DRC journalists, and acknowledging that security concerns can affect their ability to report.

– from Loewenberg, the differing objectives of UN peacekeeping (DPKO) information officers, and independent journalism. The former “is to inform and faciliatate international media, inform local populations about the UN mission, and inform UN staff. Supporting local media is not a primary target, and helps only when it helps get the UN message out or otherwise meets their priorities.” The latter is about providing accurate, impartial information to local audiences.

– from Coliver, the legal basis by which the UN can justify supporting an “independent” media within the framework of a peacekeeping mission, via the protection of freedom of expression in conflict zones, and UN legal obligations. Coliver addresses Art. XIX, the basis of most international freedom of expression arguments, and also prohibitions against propaganda for war, including incitement to violence. She discusses, in that context, the rights of journalists in conflict, and asserts that both the UN and member states have legal obligations to support those rights.

The crux of these issues turns on what Lowenberg describes as a structural problem – the DPKO’s job is to fulfill its mandate and leave. That mandate does not have an explicit development agenda, or obligations to build local media in a sustainable manner. Usually, when the UN leaves after a peacekeeping mission, it takes its kit along (Timor Leste is an exception to this). Each speaker is seeking to challenge this structural problem – that the funding only stays as long as the DPKO can justify the station within its peacekeeping objectives.

It turns out that incitement is also an issue. Coliver tackles whether “false” information could be considered incitement, and when. She expands this argument to urge caution when asserting incitement. The argument runs as follows:

Incitement is required to be prohibited by law, but what constitutes incitement and hatred? The government in power makes this decision. Law works when government is a neutral arbiter. This is in reality a rare situation. Sandra did a book on law and practice of hate speech, called “Striking a Balance: Hate Speech, Freedom of Expression, and Non-discrimination,” and found that in 20 countries, these laws were used to suppress minorities. This happens because prosecutor’s office decides what cases to bring, and also because weaker groups often use language as a weapon, as they have less power. Hence hate speech is often used to restrict political discourse. The consensus among free speech human rights advocates – on balance when violence is not happening, it’s better to use dialogue and responsible journalism, rather than blocking, censuring, or otherwise restricting volatile speech. Note Coliver’s written a lot on incitment – another book, “Broadcasting Genocide,” tackles Rwanda.

A further implication – what position would the UN take if Okapi’s independent journalism was considered to be “inciting” by the DRC’s newly minted government, which came to power after an election funded and managed by the UN. It’s already been the case that media outlets in the DRC reporting controversial subjects have been accused by the government of a lack of responsibility, for instance, the story of a woman murdered in Kinshasa who was reported to be Joseph Kabila’s estranged sister, and widely reported as such in the DRC. Okapi’s postion – they reported both angles.

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Following reactions to Fitna, another thought on intent and incitement. Both sides of this controversy are now media saavy enough to predict effects – Fitna producer Wilders that it would spark an outcry among Muslims; Islamic communities in both warning against overreacting, and pushing forward protest notes to the Dutch government. Question is whether other effects are being managed. Scattered reports of demonstrations, including a few hundred in Pakistan, but thus far, at least in the English language press, little evidence of counter-incitement, though still looking for that. See this LA Times article.

Also worth noting that the UN and others charge the film with incitement, consistent with a strong stance on other forms of potential hate speech elsewhere (will get to the UN on hate speech later). Ban Ki Moon statement says: “I condemn, in the strongest terms, the airing of Geert Wilders’ offensively anti-Islamic film. There is no justification for hate speech or incitement to violence. The right of free expression is not at stake here. I acknowledge the efforts of the Government of the Netherlands to stop the broadcast of this film, and appeal for calm to those understandably offended by it. Freedom must always be accompanied by social responsibility.”

Ok, “serendipitous violence” is an unfortunate word pairing. Though part of the intent of these notes is to sort through concepts without clear terms, and maybe blow a few metaphors along the way. The idea behind serendipitous violence is that digital media extend access of communication and information beyond the reach of their original target community. Two most obvious cases in the past few years are the ‘Koran in the toilet’ incident that sparked riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammad.

Content aggregators, translation tools, and internet create global reach for local or community-specific information. Groups that thought they were talking only to themselves find they have a larger audience. It’s not necessarily hate speech or incitement – intentional, targeted language – but a result of incidental conflict between world views, language usage, discourses. Conflict results from the spread of information beyond traditional audiences. And it’s likely to keep happening. Digital media tools and technology change quickly and provide tremendous opportunities for access, but human culture and social organization are more resistant. Out of this friction comes something else – perhaps call it correlative, or better, incidental incitement.

Returning to the LiveLeak story – in addition to it being another instance of incidental incitement, what struck me is that I first got the story through International SOS – a private health, security, and evacuation firm that provides a news feed for its members/clients , and one version of the walled garden, situated inside the design of a security, health, and on security issues. Interesting, not because it’s a private information service, but because it’s a version of the ‘walled garden’ vision of information distribution, nicely articulated by Jonathan Taplin, a USC Annenberg professor, in which some people will agree to pay a high price for accurate, vetted information uncluttered by advertisements by subscription, while others will accept information, even cell phone calls, provided they first view or listen to extensive advertising. Taplin made those remarks on a panel at a conference at USC’s Annenberg School, thrown by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and liveblogged by EthanZ here.

The conference, “on the state of the field of participatory media within the overall news and information environment,” burned a lot of mental energy trying to define terms – in the wonderfully solipsistic way media discusses media discussing media. I’ll skip the well-chewed discussions of what to call participatory media, a sample of which you can find on media re:public’s site, narrated by the able P, and move on to that other walled garden, America, and unfortunate habit of viewing participatory media (PM?) only through the American experience, despite the many and colorful instances of digital media projects around the world, and often in the developing world.

An aside – it’s interesting to discuss developed countries as having some of the same attributes and problems as developing world countries (arguably the US has a developing world living inside it, the community formerly known as the underclass, even if class analysis went out with the Berlin wall, and has never really regained it’s influence – though it’s still relevant all the time in political discourse, and policies, in the developing world (“eat the rich,” my favorite graffiti tag).

The underclass was also not well represented today, and presumably, therefore, rarely get to enjoy one of these:


a double headed hydra nozzle – perfect for conference-goers who stay up too late before important meetings with their donors.

Watching the reactions in South Asia to the Fitna film controversy, posted today on LiveLeak, and threats of violence. LiveLeak pulled the post after receiving “threats to our staff of a very serious nature.”

An incidence of possible serendipitous violence coming out of digital media content convergence. Intenational SoS says

“The shortfilm is anticipated to trigger both organized and impromptu protests and targeted attacks against Westerners and Western interests in the region, similar to those experienced after cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad were published in Denmark in September 2005. Protests against the recent re-printing of these cartoons have been held in Pakistan, Indonesia and India.”

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