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Mind your language, but irritating words are just part of free speech

Hate Speech Chief Cop Sam Kobia announced on September 27 that he won’t ban ‘tugege’.

An influencer had posted on X that the National Cohesion and Integration Commission would outlaw the word. NCIC didn’t say why they would not add ‘tugege’ to the Index of Banned Words. Nor did Kobia state its meaning now that he didn’t find the word offensive. The Cop simply waved on everyone to continue yelling ‘tugege’ whenever and wherever they wanted.

On its part’ – useless phrase beloved of some reporters – Kimathi Street told the nation it has no clue what ‘tugege’ means.

The exact meaning of the term tugege’ is still unclear, but some people find its use in the political sphere to be offensive,” NTV wrote unhelpfully on its webpage. Of course, this is not true. There are many people seated right inside Twin Towers who know exactly what that word means.

And isn’t it the job of scribes to establish the meaning of anything they report about? You can’t tell people you don’t know what a word means yet you are reporting it. Or how are audiences supposed to make sense of the world around them? Wajijazie?

The Hate Speech Chief Cop is famous for banning words, so mind your language. The Cop sparked uproar on April 1 last year when he hurled into the ‘banwagon’ a long list of allegedly insulting and coded words and phrases. They included ‘hatupangwingwi’, ‘watajua hawajui’, ‘watu wa kung’oa reli’, ‘kaffir’, ‘madoadoa’, ‘chunga kura’, and ‘mende’. Aisee, even ‘chunga kura’?

The matter ended up in court, where the learned Judge Anthony Ndung’u quashed the ban, leaving the Hate Speech Chief Cop splashed with so much egg on his face.

The media is by far the biggest carrier of political rhetoric, where words like ‘tugege’ belong. In Kenya, politicians do not issue groundbreaking policy declarations and innovative ideas every time they take to the podium. The smart politician knows how to deliver carefully selected jibes targeted at opponents. Sometimes the rhetoric sounds like war, but no one is killed or harmed. Or incited to violence or hate. People flock rallies for such fun.

That is not to say speech can’t be harmful. The creation of the Hate Speech Chief Cop in 2008 has a specific historical context. Laws against incitement to violence existed then. But the NCIC came into being following Kenya’s worst political violence during the 2007 elections. It is a fact that inflammatory speech contributed significantly to that tragedy.

Subsequently, the Constitution promulgated in 2010 expressly banned hate speech.

Kenya’s vibrant political landscape brings forth colourful epithets all the time. Few people would ever get to know most of those words and phrases if the media didn’t carry them. They would simply die at the political rally where they were uttered, or never be known beyond the village.

The legendary gentleman of Kenyan politics Emilio Mwai Kibaki ridiculed people he didn’t like as ‘tumtu’, ‘bure kabisa, or ‘mavi ya kuku, on live TV. No one tried to mute him. In fact, people roared with laughter even when the President appeared to be dead serious.

Obako’ himself had long ago earned the sobriquet General Kiguoya, General Coward, the politician who reputedly never saw a fence he didn’t want to sit on. And you’ve heard of ‘Shenzi’? Or ‘pesa ya serikali si ya mamako?

Ahem, a lot of what might at first appear as hate speech is usually harmless banter in vernacular, Sheng or Kiswahili. Mchongoano kiasi.

Kenya is diverse, and while the mosaic of ethnic identities is a richness to be celebrated, it also carries with it the danger of deepening divisions that impede national unity, that is, realisation of the vision of One People, One Nation.

In the face of rapid expansion of the media, particularly proliferation of vernacular stations and social media, concerns about the harm of hate speech are warranted.

Journalists have a professional and constitutional duty to ensure hate speech does not appear in print or electronic content, but the media must at the same time firmly defend freedom of expression.

Colourful political messaging, innocuous verbal duels, and fertile imagination cannot be criminalised through thought policing. Public life would be dull.

Just recently, ‘mambo ni matatu’ caused some political anxieties. A vibrant democracy is impossible without free speech – enjoyed within the limits of the law, of course.

See you next week!

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