8 October 2012

Kenya: Radio Propaganda and the Broadcasting of Hatred - Breaking New Ground On Hate Radio During 2007 Kenya Election

book review

No-one who has worked for the BBC World Service, as Keith Somerville and I have, will need to be reminded of the power of radio. It was the voice of Charles de Gaulle, urging the French to resist Nazi tyranny that helped convince its people that the fight was not lost.

More recently the interview with the ZANLA commander, Josiah Tongogara, by the legendary BBC Africa Service editor Robin White, ended the Rhodesian war and saw the birth of Zimbabwe.

But as the example of Rwanda so tragically proves, radio can also be used to terrible effect. The broadcasts by Radio Mille Collines whipped up sentiment and - as the UN tribunal in Arusha ruled - played a vital part in the 1994 genocide. Three of its executives were jailed for their part in these broadcasts.

What Keith Somerville's crisply written, carefully argued book does it to put these journalistic observations into a comprehensive, academic framework. He is in a particularly fortunate position to consider these questions, having started his career with the BBC's monitoring service, which listens to radio stations around the world, going on to become a producer with the World Service and then - in 2008 - moving into academia. To write the book he not only conducted the extensive literature review one might expect of an academic, he also went to Kenya to conduct interviews with a range of participants and observers in the elections of 2007 and the post election violence that left around 1,500 dead and 660,000 displaced. It is this mixture of detailed archival research and first hand accounts that is the strength of this book.

After a comprehensive account of the origins of propaganda (and who would have thought it can be traced to Assyrian atrocities carried out in the first millennium BC) Somerville moves onto the twentieth century. His account of the fascinating use of radio by an obscure American Catholic priest makes compelling reading. How many now recall the work of Rather Charlie Coughlin and his apparently innocuous broadcasts on the Shrine of the Little Flower? Yet from a tiny base Father Coughlin became one of America's most persuasive mass orators, purveying a noxious mixture of home-spun wisdom and neo-fascist propaganda, until he was finally banned from the airwaves.

After introductory chapters, Somerville takes three case studies of the use of radio in Nazi Germany, Rwanda during the genocide and in Kenya in 2007-8. Of these the first two are well known and the chapters deal with the material with authority. The third - the Kenyan case - has not been as well covered and it is here that Somerville really breaks new ground. He looks, in particular, at the role of the vernacular radio stations which broadcast in languages other than Kiswahili and English.

The story that emerges is of a vicious election campaign, with the opposition contesting the outcome. There is, of course, little new about this in Africa, but what was novel was the influence that political parties were able to exercise via the radio stations they controlled. Soon radio stations like Kass FM which was controlled by the Kalenjin leader, William Ruto, began broadcasting inflammatory material. Sadly, this was not captured by BBC Monitoring, which stuck to monitoring the mainstream media rather than these vernacular radio stations. Why this was the case is not clear, but it left a hole in the evidence.

Somerville has pieced together what took place through the interviews he undertook. It became apparent that denigatory language was regularly broadcast, with 'people of the milk' called on to 'cut the grass' and references to the 'mongoose' who had come and 'stolen our chickens.' This - the author says - is easily understandable to Kenyans, with pastoralist Kalenjin referring to themselves as 'people of the milk'. Similarly the Kikuyu, seen as outsiders in the Rift valley, could be portrayed as 'mongooses.' While the editor of Kaas FM, Joshua Sang, denied inciting violence, it is clear that he was not believed by the International Criminal Court, which charged him alongside a range of politicians and senior administration figures.

Summarising his work, Somerville concludes that hate radio encompasses two elements: setting the agenda for violence and inciting the listener to engage in acts of violence.

"The incitement of hate works on all levels described above and can be put as follows:

  • set an agenda of suspicion and ultimate hatred of a target group of groups;
  • attribute malign motivation to those groups;
  • utilize fear through the propagation of a discourse of atrocity relating to the malign motivation of the target group;
  • relate the long term threat and/or grievance against a group to current developments;
  • prepare people to 'defend' themselves and their community against this threat;
  • place the blame for violence on the target group, thus justifying violence as a response to attack or threat;
  • incite and justify action."

There is one difficulty with this approach, which is perhaps exemplified by the case of the Radio Freedom, run by the African National Congress from exile, during the apartheid period. In recent years there has been some discussion about whether some of their broadcasts could be described as 'hate radio.'

Taking Somerville's criteria, it would be hard to resist the conclusion that these broadcasts fell into this category. One example would be the broadcast made on the 28 October 1986 on Radio Freedom.

"You owe the Boers nothing. In fact it is they that owe you everything because they have grown fat and wealthy on your poverty and labour. Sabotage his farming operations. Destroy his crops. Sabotage his implements and machinery. Daring actions of Umkhonto we Sizwe are not the only way of confronting the enemy. Sabotage operations are part of the people's war. And actions of the people are: Do not allow the Boers to arm you against the people. Take the guns and communication equipment [word indistinct] and everything you can lay your hands on and turn them on the exploitative farmers."

Was the ANC wrong to suggest that farm workers should kill farmers, who were civilians even if some were members of para-military defence units? Did the ANC's attacks on "boers" denigrate Afrikaners as a whole and lead to a hatred of them as an ethic group? Since end of apartheid the singing of songs glorifying acts of violence against farmers, "kill the Boers", has been outlawed by the courts.

This has, however, not stopped some - including the expelled former ANC Youth Leader, Julius Malema - from continuing to sing the song in public and to encourage others to do so.

Can these sentiments be said to have contributed to the approximately 3,000 farm murders that have taken place since the end of apartheid? There are no easy answers to these questions. Keith Somerville has provided an excellent guide to the history and dangers of hate radio. Finding an all-encompassing definition that deals with every form of broadcasting, laying a clear red line that must not be crossed, may require further analytical work.

Radio Propaganda and the Broadcasting of Hatred: Historical Development and Definitions is published by Palgrave Macmillan £55.00 Hardback

Martin Plaut is Africa editor, BBC World Service News.

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