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What do you call a goat in your mother tongue?

Ngugi wa Thiong’o – the man who dropped the name James because it was English – must be one proud man today, and for all the bad reasons. The men who jailed him for staging a Kikuyu play at Kamirithu in Limuru are learning to speak in their mother tongue.

See, our politicians are realising one thing, something that James has been so passionate about – the power of the mother tongue, and even more so, the power of mother tongue TVs.

President Uhuru Kenyatta took to four Gikuyu vernacular radio stations to explain the Building Bridges Initiative to his backyard in Mt Kenya region last month.

In the interview where took on critics of his pet project, Uhuru in one sweep reached out to millions of people in Mt Kenya region and beyond who tune in to Gikuyu vernacular radio stations.

His handshake friend Raila Odinga took the cue – he went to Inooro TV, again making a direct appeal to millions who tune in to vernacular radio and TV stations.

It is on this forum where we predicted that vernacular TV stations are the next big thing, and for a very good reason . Ten years after devolution, focus has shifted from Nairobi as the capital of news to the villages where the real stories are.

Here, they do not have the luxury of watching TVs as they work, like a paltry a couple of millions of formally employed Kenyans. Rather, they have a small radio patched on the tea and coffee bushes or on the cowshed, feeding them with information in their every day language as they go about their activities.

The TV is only watched in the evening after the tea and coffee has been taken to the factory, the cattle milked and fed and the chicken safely locked up in their coops.

This makes the vernacular radio station the most powerful information tool for the vast majority of Kenyans.

Politicians are realising that they do not need to queue for interviews at NTV or KTN or Citizen to reach their people, when they can get a few minutes in local vernacular radio stations and speak to ten times more listeners than if they spoke on national TV.

And here lies a challenge: In the bloody 2007-08 post-election violence, vernacular radio stations stood accused of playing a key role in fanning the flames of ethnic hatred.

Only last month, Interior PS Fred Matiang’i warned that the government was closely watching a number of vernacular radio stations after Kapedo went up in flames.

For all their effectiveness in reaching out to bigger, scattered audiences, vernacular radio stations can easily weaponise mother tongue, as they did in the Rwandan Genocide back in 1994, fanning the brutal murder of up to 800,000 people in 100 days.

Back in 2007-08 post-poll violence, media observers pointed out that the killings and mayhem raised an octane higher after every news hour.

The explanation was simple: On news at 7am, some vernacular radio station reports that X number of people were killed when members of community A attacked members of community B.  The news item was picked by a vernacular radio station that community B tunes to and aired on its 8am news.

You do not need to be a rocket scientist to know what will be on 9am news: Y killed in a retaliatory attack by members of community B.

It gets worse when the vernacular stations air live interviews of local leaders with their venomous tongues: Suddenly the erstwhile effective tools of communication become command centres for ethnic strife.

And so a cycle of violence starts, fanned by a cycle of lies, mistruths and propaganda, because, tragically, most of the reports that many vernacular radio stations air are rarely verified, and largely depend on call-ins from their listeners, who are not journalists, and have no iota of knowledge on media ethics.

It is now almost a year to the next General Election – what from a media ethics perspective is a season of madness. Even as we celebrate the power of vernacular stations, media ethics faces its greatest test.

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