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UN wants African to curb hate speech by online media organizations

Report urges action while guarding free speech

The surge in websites that promote hate speech and racism in Africa requires countries to implement measures to combat online extremism without curbing freedom of speech, according to a U.N. report.

Africa is experiencing an explosion in the number online media organizations, many of which are accused of promoting hate speech and racism. Meanwhile, the U.N. report comes at a time when African governments including Zambia, Kenya and Malawi are working toward banning online media organizations perceived to promote hate speech.

The Kenyan government, through the Communications Commission of Kenya (KCC), has banned politicians from sending bulk SMS messages to groups suspected of promoting hate speech.

Politicians in the region are extensively using online media organizations and social media networks as a way to quickly reach voters but in the process some use what is perceived to be hate speech aimed at promoting unrest against the government and friction among tribal factions.

However, the U.N. said measures such as self- and co-regulatory initiatives developed by service providers and other relevant players are necessary to make efforts to curb online hate speech more effective.

The U.N. special rapporteur on racism, Mutuma Ruteere, presented the report to the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Mutere said there should be greater cooperation on racism on the Internet among African governments, international bodies, the private sector, civil societies and local communities in order to tackle the problem.

"A possible way of countering racism on the Internet is through content diversification, in particular by local content," said Mutuma in the report.

"States should adopt policies and strategies to make the internet widely accessible and affordable to all," Mutuma added.

According to the report, any restrictions, control and censorship of Internet content should be done on a clearly defined legal basis and in a manner that is necessary, appropriate and compatible with countries' international human rights obligations.

In Southern Africa so far, only Malawi has drafted a related law, which seeks to empower the government to regulate and control online communication including social media networks.

The law also introduces the concept of government-appointed cyber-inspectors who would have the powers to, among other duties, monitor and inspect any website or activity on any information system in the public domain and report any unlawful activity to the regulatory authority.

In Zambia there is no such law but the government has arbitrary ordered the closure of several online publications, in particular the Zambian Watchdog, which has been accused of being used by opposition political leaders to promote hate speech.

Kenya, meanwhile, has enacted rules for operators in an effort to suppress messages seen as inflammatory, in a bid to avoid the unrest experienced in 2008 during the general elections.

According to the new guidelines, "mobile operators will be able to filter messages being transmitted through their networks and turn down any content that is deemed inciting or discriminatory."

In Africa and the Middle East, the Web is increasingly becoming a conduit of social unrest, resulting in attempts to shut down online news sites by the governments. However, critics say the attempts to close down online news sites pose a threat to the growth of the Internet in the region.

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