Press censorship feared in Eastern Africa as the ICC indicts first media personality. Ernest Waititu reports
There is fear that some East African governments might clamp down on local-language stations in the wake of indictment of a Kenyan journalist by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged crimes against humanity.
Joshua Arap Sang, a broadcast journalist, has become the first media personality to be indicted by the ICC.
Sang was on 15 Dec named alongside six politicians and government officials for having masterminded the 2007-2008 post-election violence.
He is the head of operations at Kass FM, a nascent radio station that broadcasts in the Kalenjin language. The language is spoken in Kenya’s Rift Valley region, where much of the violence took place.
In naming the radio personality as one of the six suspects, the ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said that together with two politicians from the Rift Valley indicted for instigating the violence “Joshua Sang played a crucial part” in coordinating attacks.
Arap Sang, as he is popularly known by his listeners, was, according to the ICC Prosecutor, “involved in planning this operation, collecting supporters and also using coded messages” on radio to plan the violence.
Moments before and after the ICC prosecutor made the indictment, Sang was on air on Kass FM. He responded to the indictment with appeals to his listeners to remain calm, saying he was confident of his innocence.
A disputed election result in late 2007 led to violent attacks in various Kenyan regions, including Kisumu, Mombasa, Eldoret, and the capital, Nairobi. The violence left 1,133 people dead and over 650,000 homeless.
Media observers and monitors singled out certain local-language radio stations for contributing to ethnic animosity through hate speech. The observers noted that some local-language radio stations not only took clear sides supporting leading political parties but also spread fear and propaganda through their programming, slandered individuals and communities and propagated ethnocentrism.
Speaking in Nairobi a few days before the indictment, in an exclusive meeting with journalists working with community and local-language radio stations, which included Sang, Moreno underlined the importance of in the peace process in Kenya, saying the radio stations “have a bigger role than me in dividing or uniting Kenyans.”
Although they were cited for unfair coverage of the election campaigns and the violence that broke out after the contested results were announced, mainstream media seem to agree with others on the role that local-language radio played during the violence.
Earlier in the year Joseph Odindo, editorial director of Nation Media Group, the largest media house in the region, called local-language radio station “poison”. In his view, vernacular radio stations played a role in “fanning the violence” that followed the elections in 2007.
Others in the mainstream media say the naming of Sang as a key suspect in post-election violence should not be taken as an indictment of the Kenyan media in general, but as censure of an individual journalist. The chair of the Editors’ Guild in Kenya, Macharia Gaitho says the indictment of a journalist by the International Criminal Court (ICC) is not a reason to pass judgment on Kenyan media as a whole, which in general acted responsibly in reporting the 2007 general elections and the violence that followed.
Media scholars in the region acknowledge the influence of local-language broadcast radio in a region still plagued by low literacy rates. Dr Levi Obonyo , the head of communications at Daystar University and a council member of the Media Council of Kenya, says that local-language broadcast journalists in Kenya have bigger influence over listeners than your average media personalities.
The indictment of Sang has sent shock waves in the East-African region, which saw a number of media personalities indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for having participated in the genocide that killed close to a million people in 1994.
In the neighboring Uganda, media commentators hope that Sang’s indictment will not serve as an excuse for the Ugandan Government, which has a history of gagging the media, to roll back media freedoms.
Journalist Benjamin Rukwengye writes that for Uganda, which is in the build up to another divisive election, “every journalist has a role to play in ensuring that the relative media freedom we currently enjoy is augmented, rather than curtailed by a government which will eagerly flaunt Arap Sang as [a point of] reference.”
Ernest Waititu, a native of Kenya, is founder and editor of Afrikanews.org. He first wrote for Index on this topic in Volume 39 Number 2.