Kenyan Trial Asks, Can Journalism Be a War Crime?

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Radio journalist Joshua arap Sang is accused of inciting mass violence in 2007. His case raises complex questions, rooted in Nuremberg and Rwanda, about the capabilities and responsibilities of speech.

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Robert Corey-Boulet

To Elizabeth Cherotich Karanja, the voice of Kenyan radio journalist Joshua arap Sang is a menacing thing, the background narrative for violence in late 2007 that claimed her livestock, her home, and her sense of security.

In December 2007, her village, a pocket of ethnic Kikuyu families in the western part of Kenya's Rift Valley, was set upon by Kalenjin rioters angry that their chosen presidential candidate, Raila Odinga, had lost that month's election to the Kikuyu incumbent, Mwai Kibaki. Though Karanja, 42, is herself a Kalenjin, she discovered, hiding from the mobs as she watched homes burn, that in marrying a Kikuyu man twenty years prior she had surrendered the benefits of belonging to the area's majority tribe.

Perhaps Karanja's most vivid memory of the violence is of listening to Sang's show -- titled "Lene Emet," or "What the Nation is Saying" -- on the Kalenjin-language KASS FM station and hearing a message, delivered in code but clear to anyone paying attention, that seemed intended specifically for her. She recalled recently, "He said, 'Kalenjin girls who played football the wrong way will regret it, because they will have scored an own goal.'"

This is not the type of anecdote by which Sang, 36, currently wants to be defined, and for good reason. In December, International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo listed him as one of six suspects implicated in a probe of the post-election violence, which killed more than 1,200 Kenyans and displaced hundreds of thousands. In particular, Sang stands accused of contributing to the crimes against humanity of murder, persecution, and forcible transfer of population. He accomplished this, Ocampo says, not with subtle soccer metaphors but rather with overt calls to arms -- "What are you waiting for?" "What are you doing at home?" "The war has begun" -- paired with specific instructions.

Rwanda's legacy has some scholars wondering whether the connection between airwaves and mass graves has been overstated

Guilty or not, Ocampo's filings make Sang one of the few journalists ever to be accused of atrocity crimes, and the respective fates of his predecessors do not bode well for his prospects should the case against him go to trial.

In 1946, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg found Julius Streicher, publisher of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer as well as anti-Semitic children's books, guilty of incitement to murder and extermination, sentencing him to hang. The next such verdict came more than fifty years later at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which ultimately tried and convicted four journalists affiliated with the notorious Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, or RTLM.

The Rwanda cases popularized the idea that journalists could play a central role in mass slaughter. From mainstream films to peer-reviewed papers, the contributions of RTLM to the campaign against ethnic Tutsis, hundreds of thousands of whom were killed by ethnic Hutus, feature in most accounts of the genocide. Roméo Dallaire, who commanded UN forces in Rwanda, has written that during the genocide radio "was akin to the voice of God," and that "if the radio called for violence, many Rwandans would respond."

At an event in April marking the anniversary of the genocide, a senior legal adviser at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) told reporters gathered at the Rwandan High Commission in Nairobi that the case against Sang was made possible in part by the Rwandan tribunal's prosecutions of journalists. "We are happy that today journalists cannot use the mic and the newspaper to propagate incitement, and to incite the population to commit crimes against humanity," said Roland Kouassi Amoussouga, who is also a tribunal spokesman. "That is a legacy of the ICTR."

But this legacy has some scholars wondering whether the connection between airwaves and mass graves has been overstated. Scott Straus, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, has raised doubts about the potential culpability of the media in large-scale violence. In a 2007 paper drawing on the content of RTLM programming, interviews with perpetrators, and an analysis of RTLM's broadcast range compared to where violence occurred, Straus concluded that the station had, at worst, a "second-order impact" on the genocide that could not be equated with the influence of other factors, among them face-to-face mobilization by local leaders.

In analyzing his findings, he suggested that the starring role afforded RTLM in accounts of the genocide betrayed an attempt to explain away a complex, troubling conflict in a distant country that is otherwise of little significance.

Though he has not studied the Sang case closely, Straus said in an interview that the same concerns could apply to Kenya. "I don't think the media should be the prism through which we analyze and understand why these episodes of violence happen," he said. "I think they happen for much more complex reasons."

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Robbie Corey-Boulet is a journalist based in Monrovia, Liberia. He has also written for Guernica, The Caravan, and Asia Literary Review.

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