NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyan politicians are steering clear of inflammatory rhetoric at large public rallies before next month's vote, but there are fears that hate speech is still spreading online and at smaller meetings out of sight of authorities, monitors said.
This year's campaigning stands in sharp contrast to Kenya's disputed 2007 election, when some candidates were accused of using speeches and broadcasts to fuel ethnic clashes that killed more than 1,200 people.
The change is a welcome development, says the government's own hate speech monitor, and partly the result of a handful of lawsuits against lawmakers and others charged with incitement and other offences. The cases are still grinding their way through the courts.
But the public reserve doesn't mean Kenyan politics has rid itself of its reliance on ethnic loyalties, with some politicians seeking to exploit tribal rivalries or promising patronage in return for votes.
"I think politicians are trying to be smart," Hassan Mohamed, secretary of the government-run monitor, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), told Reuters.
"It is their foot soldiers who are doing this (hate speech). They are being paid by politicians."
The commission was set up in the aftermath of the 2007 violence in East Africa's economic powerhouse.
The next vote in 2013 was largely peaceful as senior leaders faced charges at the International Criminal Court of inciting violence in 2007, though those cases later collapsed.
This time round the Commission and other bodies have been trying to keep a lid on any return of inflammatory rhetoric.
Police in each of Kenya's 47 counties are supposed to attend all rallies with body-cameras and digital recorders, under new regulations.
A student was charged in the western town of Eldoret over a Facebook post on Monday, days after another student was charged in the capital over a WhatsApp text.
So far in this year's campaign, the body has brought charges against both a lawmaker from the opposition, and an independent candidate, alongside students, bloggers and Facebook users. All deny the charges.
Last year, the arrest of another eight particular prominent lawmakers was a turning point, said the NCIC's Hassan Mohamed.
"It sent some signals to people that no matter how powerful you are, you will face the law," he said.
The eight accused include lawmaker Moses Kuria, from incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta's ruling Jubilee party - who was charged over a speech posted on YouTube - and Junet Mohamed from the opposition, led by Raila Odinga - indicted over speech reported on local media.
Both lawmakers deny the charges and both are seeking re-election on Aug. 8.
In the last elections, Odinga's key support came from parts of the coast and the west of the country, home the Luo, the Luhya and other groups, whereas the ruling party had more support among the Kikuyu and part of the Kalenjin, the ethnic groups of the president and vice president.
Arrests are easy but convictions are hard. The law requires anyone submitting electronic recordings to testify to their authenticity but many citizens are afraid, say campaigners.
The courts move at a glacial pace. The case against the eight lawmakers has ground on for a year. A case against a senator from the coastal city of Mombasa has lasted 18 months.
Other punishments are possible. The electoral body has fined two governorship candidates $10,000 each after supporters clashed, and two aspiring parliamentary candidates for violence. No one has been disqualified.
ELOG, a coalition of civil society groups monitoring the elections, said the NCIC had not yet responded to any of the 28 incidents of hate speech that it had reported from the national and local media.
Monitoring rallies and media also missed threats made by private citizens, said Leo Mutisya, project leader for ELOG's hate-speech monitoring program.
No recordings were made of meetings that reportedly took place at night-time before clashes between communities in remote parts of Laikipia, Baringo and other counties earlier this year, he told Reuters.
"Hate speech has really gone down in public but we don't know what is going on in private," he added. "The media cannot watch day and night."
Editing by Andrew Heavens