By Richard Carver
Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) was almost the first thing that outside observers noticed about the Rwanda genocide:
“Hutus could be seen listening attentively to every broadcast… They held their cheap radios in one hand and machetes in the other, ready to start killing once the order had been given.”
“Much of the responsibility for the genocide in Rwanda can be blamed on the media. Many people have heard of Radio des Mille Collines, which began broadcasting a steady stream of racist, anti-Tutsi invective in September 1993.”
Hence it was hardly surprising (if rather belated) when, in 2003, three Rwandan journalists, two of them from RTLM, were found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda of participating in the genocide through their broadcasts.
The verdict of the Arusha tribunal seemed to close that chapter and it would be easy to accept that those found guilty deserved their fate and leave it at that. But what, in reality, was the role of RTLM in the genocide? And what lessons can usefully be learned from it?
The prominence of RTLM in Western media accounts of the genocide can be easily explained. Journalists and editors always love media stories for essentially narcissistic reasons. They are taken with the idea that they have an enormous influence on public behaviour – for good or bad. Here was an example of the immense power of the media.
Yet many of the accounts of RTLM’s role do not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. Take the example already quoted: did Hutu really stand clutching radios in one hand and machetes in the other, waiting to be “incited”? Which Hutu do we mean (presumably not those who fell victim to the génocidaires)? And if they were so disposed towards genocide, why did they need to wait for the radio to tell them to carry it out?
This version of events rested upon a particular interpretation of why the genocide took place. It assumes that primitive and primordial “tribal” hatreds only had to be unlocked for Hutu to begin slaughtering Tutsi. Yet every serious account of the genocide stresses its highly planned and organised nature. That RTLM and its owners were part of the plot to commit genocide cannot be disputed. However, the assumption that RTLM was a necessary precondition for genocide is unproven and unprovable.
The influence of media content on public behaviour has been a subject for endless and inconclusive academic study over decades. We cannot say with any certainty whether, for example, violent television programmes will predispose children to behave violently. Yet many serious commentators have concluded with certainty that the RTLM broadcasts incited genocide. There were indeed contemporary accounts in the Western media of genocidaires “confessing” that they had committed their crimes because the radio had told them to. Such testimony was plainly self-serving yet was usually taken at
The point here is not to exonerate RTLM from responsibility. However, without examining precisely the nature of RTLM’s crimes we cannot hope to draw any useful lessons.
Even 10 years on, the weakness of most accounts of RTLM’s role remains a lack of concrete analysis of either the content of the RTLM broadcasts or their impact on their audience. The latter is more excusable than the former: it remains almost impossible to conduct any scientific study of how RTLM affected people’s behaviour.
Yet it is possible to analyse RTLM’s output. To some extent this work has been done, although the findings are still often ignored. (In 1996, Linda Kirschke wrote a detailed account of RTLM’s broadcasts based upon tapes and transcripts. I base my observations on RTLM’s output on her research. ) The generally accepted understanding of RTLM remains that cited above: that it broadcast “a steady stream of racist, anti-Tutsi invective”. In fact, the story is more complicated.
RTLM’s role in the genocide can only be understood in terms of a strict distinction between what was broadcast before and after 6 April 1994. After that date it would be an understatement to accuse RTLM of incitement. The radio station did not try to persuade people towards genocide; it organised them to carry it out. RTLM broadcast the names and vehicle registration numbers of the targeted victims. This was purely a way of communicating intelligence to the militias carrying out the killing, giving them the
information they needed to stop the victims at roadblocks.
RTLM’s role during this phase was only secondarily one of propaganda. Under the 1948 Genocide Convention, any external power with the means to do so had not only the right to jam RTLM broadcasts, but the obligation to do so.
RTLM’s output before 6 April 1994 poses questions that are more complex. The ethnic propaganda that RTLM broadcast was much more subtle than most accounts would suggest. RTLM was a slick and youthful station playing popular music. It was apparently the favoured listening of the rebels of the Rwanda Patriotic Front – the very targets of its “anti-Tutsi invective”. The meaning of RTLM’s often elliptical ethnic references would have been well understood by a Rwandan audience. But it was conveyed with a sophistication and wit that contrasted with earlier broadcasts from radio Rwanda, which, unlike, RTLM, was under direct and formal government control.
Retrospectively it is clear that RTLM’s broadcasts between its launch in September 1993 and 6 April 1994 provided evidence of its owners’ complicity in planning the genocide. They may also have helped to create a popular mood more favourable to genocide.
So far, this article has focused on what was exceptional and unique about the Rwandan situation, as most discussions of RTLM tend to. Yet it is also important to note how RTLM emerged in a way that was completely typical of failed democratic transitions in Africa.
In 1989 President Juvenal Habyarimana was edged into a reluctant transition to a multi-party system. Yet this was accompanied by no thorough reform of public institutions in Rwanda, including the broadcasting system. The publicly funded broadcaster, Radio Rwanda, remained under strict government control. There was no transparent and accountable system to licence private broadcasters. Indeed, the only private station eventually to be licensed was RTLM, owned by a group of extremist Hutu allied to a faction within the government.
This scenario – lack of democratic control over broadcasting in a period of political transition – has been played out in countless countries in Africa and elsewhere. While the consequences have seldom been as disastrous as in Rwanda, the practical lessons should by now be well understood. There needs to be an institutional reform of broadcasting that involves mechanisms for genuine public control over public broadcasting, an open and accountable system for issuing private broadcasting licences and space for the emergence of community media.
Rwanda was neither the first nor last time that the media have participated in massive human rights violations or crimes against humanity. The role of Nazi anti-semitic media in the European genocide in the 1940s was addressed in the Nuremberg trials (which provided some precedents for the Arusha tribunal on Rwanda). In the years immediately before the Rwanda genocide, sections of the media in former Yugoslavia had been actively fomenting ethnic crimes. Since 1994, media have tried to incite violence in Burundi, Congo/Zaire and Zimbabwe, among others.
The last of these examples is instructive. The Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe has drawn explicit parallels between RTLM and the role of the state media in inciting violence against the Zimbabwean opposition. Although the scale of the violence is much less, the institutional framework is very reminiscent of Rwanda. The propaganda and misinformation of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation is so potent precisely because there is no alternative. As in Rwanda, the public broadcaster is under tight government control and there is no space for independent private radio.
The Zimbabwe example is also relevant because MMPZ have tried to explain what is the significance and impact of the hate messages in the government media. They have concluded – unlike the simplistic initial analyses of the Rwanda genocide – that the extreme language and baroque, fictitious conspiracies in the official media are not aimed at convincing the general public that the opposition are a tool of Zimbabwe’s imperialist enemies. Rather they are intended to fire up the relatively small numbers of members of ruling party militias and security forces actually engaged in carrying out human rights violations. Most ordinary Zimbabweans know from their own experience that the ZBC talks lies; a small band of ruling party loyalists uses these propaganda messages to reinforce them in the correctness of their own brutal measures.
Such a thesis is very difficult to prove without conducting a type of sociological research that would be impossible in present-day Zimbabwe (or Rwanda). But it may also provide a useful understanding of how RTLM functioned in preparing the genocide. On this hypothesis, RTLM was not primarily concerned with convincing ordinary people to participate in genocide; it reinforced the conviction of those who were already part of the conspiracy to commit genocide.
Aside from the conclusion that a proper political transition should include democratisation of the media, the practical conclusions to be drawn from the RTLM experience are equally tentative. The criminal prosecution and conviction of the RTLM journalists was immensely important. It establishes the principle of the accountability of journalists for the consequences of what they broadcast. It does not, however, show what steps should be taken to prevent such material from being broadcast in the first place.
Freedom of expression advocates have always been rightly wary of any suggestion of prohibiting “hate speech”, however obnoxious it might be. They argue that violent and intolerant views should be combated by allowing tolerant and pacific opinions to compete. In practical terms, that is, saying that a plural media environment is the best way of neutralising RTLM and its kin.
Any call to prohibit “hate speech” must be treated with the utmost care. To whom is such a call addressed? In the case of Rwanda it might have been directed to the very government that was promoting and encouraging “hate speech”. Anti-hate speech laws notoriously have the opposite effect from that intended. The African state with the most extensive battery of laws prohibiting “incitement to racial hatred” was none other than apartheid South Africa. The laws were used, of course, against opponents of the apartheid system.
Or perhaps the call was directed to the “international community”. I have already suggested that RTLM’s broadcasts after 6 April should have been jammed. At that stage the radio station was being used to organise the genocide. The fact that these orders were being issued over public airwaves gave them no privilege. This was not, by then, a freedom of expression issue.
But we should be very careful not to predate such a call to cover RTLM before 6 April. Giving powerful governments a general mandate to shut down broadcasting stations is an extremely dangerous precedent. An outcry over the role of Serb broadcasting in the former Yugoslavia effectively
legitimised NATO’s bombing of the official Belgrade broadcasting station in 1999. This was done to further NATO war aims in Kosovo. It was a war crime. We should beware of what we wish for in case the wish is granted.
Neither “hate speech” laws nor international military action are the answer. The practical lessons from the RTLM experience are more prosaic. Pluralistic and accountable broadcasting is an indispensable part of building democracy and the voices of hate can only be neutralised if they are confronted with a variety of alternative points of view.
* Richard Carver is director of Oxford Media Research. He wrote “Broadcasting and political transition: Rwanda and beyond” in Richard Fardon and Graham Furniss (eds), African Broadcast Cultures: Radio in Transition, James Currey, 2000.
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