Rewriting the Script on Hostile Speech

  • Cross Examining the Effects of Hate Speech Kenyan courtroom TV drama Vioja Mahakamani dedicated four episodes to examining the harmful effects of inciting speech and methods of becoming less sensitive to its appeal. Image Credit: Vioja Mahakamani

  • Cross Examining the Effects of Hate Speech Kenyan courtroom TV drama Vioja Mahakamani dedicated four episodes to examining the harmful effects of inciting speech and methods of becoming less sensitive to its appeal. Image Credit: Vioja Mahakamani

  • Cross Examining the Effects of Hate Speech Kenyan courtroom TV drama Vioja Mahakamani dedicated four episodes to examining the harmful effects of inciting speech and methods of becoming less sensitive to its appeal. Image Credit: Vioja Mahakamani

  • Cross Examining the Effects of Hate Speech Kenyan courtroom TV drama Vioja Mahakamani dedicated four episodes to examining the harmful effects of inciting speech and methods of becoming less sensitive to its appeal. Image Credit: Vioja Mahakamani

  • Cross Examining the Effects of Hate Speech Kenyan courtroom TV drama Vioja Mahakamani dedicated four episodes to examining the harmful effects of inciting speech and methods of becoming less sensitive to its appeal. Image Credit: Vioja Mahakamani

Rewriting the Script on Hostile Speech

Inflammatory public speech can create a social context that normalizes violent action, as has been witnessed in several cases of mass violence in African nations. To combat this, a coalition of researchers and broadcasters created dramatic content that teaches audiences how to resist the urge to act on such speech.

After a campaign rife with vicious, inflammatory speech, Kenya erupted in mass violence following the 2007 presidential election. To avoid a repeat of that violence, the cast of the long-running Vioja Mahakamani courtroom comedy was engaged to take on the issue.

The radio play is based on the scholarship of Professor Ervin Staub, founding director of the Psychology of Peace and Violence program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and produced by the Dutch NGO Radio La Benevolencija. It draws on the work of the World Policy Institute’s Dangerous Speech Project on the harmful effects of inflammatory speech and how people can resist it.

Using ensemble comedy interlaced with important civic concepts, a magistrate and prosecutor, Vioja Mahakamani teaches Kenyans about laws on the books and touches on key issues. It has been aired weekly since its inception in 1974.  The episodes created for this project touched on the harmful effects of calling people names on the street, printing pamphlets with threatening language, and the fact that people must take responsibility for their own actions even if incited by politicians or others.

This project builds on similar efforts in Rwanda to create a blueprint to counter the impact of inflammatory speech. Thoughtful dialogue and consideration of the impact of one’s words are keys to the approach, fostering reconciliation instead of anger.

The cast of Vioja Mahakamani (which means “drama in the court room” in the Kenyan national language of Kiswahili) wrote and performed the episodes after a daylong class and discussion on hate speech and dangerous speech and the effects of such speech, and a second day of collective scriptwriting.

In one passage, a character summed up the case against an overzealous campaigner.

“Politicians do incite citizens by telling them that there are those people who came to occupy their land," said the prosecutor. "My lord it`s very wrong as a politician to use inciting language."

This is a project of the Fetzer Advisory Council on the Law Professions.