Safaricom Network's publication on 17th June 2012 of guidelines on political messages sent through its messaging network is a good initiative by a key player in the public domain. This is a welcome venture to ensure responsible and ethical political messaging in the period leading up to the elections.
Safaricom has demonstrated that this is not just an issue for the State to manage, but one that the both public and private actors can take up and play a vital supporting role to protect the public interest and contribute to curbing the use of incitement to discrimination as a campaign tool.
However what is lacking is a clear, codified threshold to be used to determine what actually constitutes 'hate' speech. This is a crucial step considering the context in which such initiatives are emerging with the aim of preventing a resurgence of election based violence and promoting national cohesion and integration.
The discourse on 'hate' speech in Kenya is fraught with occasions of legitimate speech being wrongly classified as hate speech, such as criticism of politicians; and conversely speech that incites persons to discriminate others, at regionally based meetings for example, being swept under the carpet.
The elements of such a threshold should include considerations of; the severity of speech and the harm advocated including the magnitude and intensity of such speech, the content of the speech to determine what form or nature of speech it is, the intent of the speech, the extent of the speech - that is the reach and size of its audience, the likelihood of probability or harm occurring as a result of the speech, the immediacy of any actions called for by the speech and the context in which the speech was made.
Such a threshold will ensure justifiable classifications of speech and limitations to freedom of expression. A threshold would serve to realize the spirit of the Constitution of Kenya, as well as fulfill Kenya's regional and international obligations under limitations of freedom of expression. It would also serve to promote progressive laws, policies and practices developed for these purposes.
Additionally, a legitimate threshold will ensure that such practical actions against 'hate' speech are not vague and variable. Given the Kenyan political and social context in which initiatives to curb the use of 'hate' speech are operating, it is imperative that a threshold is urgently endorsed for use in this and similar initiatives.
Stephanie Muchai is a senior program officer Freedom of Expression Eastern Africa with Article 19.