United Nations Report on the Power of Hate Media in the Great Lakes Region of Africa

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With reports of a rapidly deteriorating security situation in eastern DRC, another “hate radio” operating in the Great Lakes region has come to light, evoking memories of the Rwanda genocide and reopening the debate on the influence of the air waves in fomenting civil unrest. Despite its disbanding after the 1994 genocide, the legacy of Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), which played a major role in the massacres, refuses to go away.

“Voix du Patriote”

RTLM has spawned two similar stations in a region where FM radio and cheap mobile transmitters are an effective means of targeting many people in a relatively small area. The latest in the line of Great Lakes inflammatory media is known as “Voix du Patriote” and has been operating intermittently in the Bukavu region of South Kivu where the local authorities hold it responsible for inciting attacks on the town last December. Reportedly operated by elements supportive of Mayi-Mayi rebels, the radio is said to have the backing of ex-Forces Armees Rwandaises (FAR), ex-Forces Armees Zairoises (FAZ) and Interahamwe militia. News reports confirm Mayi-Mayi fighters attacked Bukavu in the early hours of 11 December 1997, with intense street battles continuing into the morning. There are continuing reports of tension between Banyamulenge and non-Banyamulenge members of the armed forces in South Kivu amid a “congolisation” of the army.

The vice-governor of South Kivu Benjamin Serukiza explains the radio was first heard last November coming in the wake of leaflets distributed throughout Bukavu urging the “visitors (Tutsis) to go home”. He says the leaflets were distributed by a clandestine anti-Tutsi group, Front de Liberation Contre l’Occupation Tutsie (FLOT), created in October. FLOT’s political wing, Union des Forces Vives Pour la Liberation et la Democratie en RDC-Zaire (UFLD), is said to be responsible for the broadcasts of Voix du Patriote. FLOT and UFLD in the South Kivu region, Serukiza adds, comprise disparate ethnic groups opposed to the Banyamulenge, brought together under the umbrella of the Interahamwe. It is for this reason Voix du Patriote is strongly believed to have links with the defunct RTLM. At some point during its broadcasts, it actually refers to itself as RTLM, reports say. Three Rwandan Interahamwe officers are being held in Bukavu’s jail in connection with the broadcasts.

Voix du Patriote started life as Radio Kahuzi Biega, named after the nearby national park from where it was believed to be broadcasting using a small mobile transmitter. For a while this made life difficult for a religious and humanitarian radio station, Bukavu Extension Service – Technical Radio (BEST), locally known as Radio Kahuzi, whose operators stress there is no connection whatsoever. It would appear Voix du Patriote was deliberately trying to cause confusion, also using religious songs and programmes to attract its listeners, and broadcasting in a variety of languages, including Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda, French and local vernaculars. Local observers believe there is a link with a former acting DRC army chief and a former close ally of President Laurent-Desire Kabila in the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL), who they say was under pressure from the Bashi people (the dominant ethnic group in South Kivu) to behave “patriotically”. The officer was arrested last November, accused by the government of “military indiscipline” and of “creating a tribal militia”.

Typical broadcasts call on the local population to “ensure” the “visitors return to their home”. “The country has been sold to the Tutsis,” it says. It tells the “Bantus” to “rise as one to combat the Tutsis” and describes the Tutsis as “Ethiopians and Egyptians” who do not belong in the region. The Bantus should also “help their Bahutu brothers to reconquer Burundi and Rwanda,” another broadcast says. “It is ridiculous that for us, for a country like Zaire, that foreigners come to lead us…We chose arms because the enemy chose them. We shall make them leave with arms. The occupation government should go.”

Serukiza says the radio also alleges the launch of an operation by Rwandan Defence Minister and Vice-President Paul Kagame against the “Rats du Kivu”, claiming thousands of Rwandan soldiers are being sent to South Kivu. Although the radio was last heard in Bukavu towards the end of last year, Serukiza does not believe it has been silenced. Other local sources say that after the Bukavu authorities closed in on some of those believed to be behind the broadcasts, the radio was heard briefly in the Goma and Uvira areas. According to some reports, the equipment has been taken to Tanzania where the rebels are “waiting for the right time” to restart the broadcasts.

Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines

Throughout the world, radio is the most effective way of spreading ideas and information, for good or for evil. The most notorious hate radio in the Great Lakes region was Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines. Established in mid-1993, it attracted many listeners because it played good music and was “chatty and lively” compared to the rather staid state-owned Radio Rwanda. Privately-owned, with some of the major shareholders belonging to ex-president Juvenal Habyarimana’s family, it was set up to broadcast propaganda against the Arusha peace accords which hardline Hutus – mostly from Habyarimana’s northwestern ‘Akazu’ inner circle – perceived as a threat to their power base. After Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down on 6 April 1994, RTLM became a vehicle for inciting the slaughter that followed, calling for a “final war” and for “exterminating the inyenzi (cockroaches)”. But even before the death of Habyarimana and the ensuing massacres, the radio on 3 April broadcast the chilling warning: “On the 3rd, the 4th and the 5th [April] there will be a little something here in Kigali city. And also on the 7th and the 8th – you will hear the sound of bullets or grenades explode.” Once the killing began, the radio played a role in organising the militias and broadcast lists of people to be exterminated.

Consequently, some of the biggest names associated with the radio are on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania. It has been a struggle to get them to Arusha. Many of them fled Rwanda after the genocide to seek sanctuary in a third country. Some of these countries acknowledged that those responsible for using the media to incite killings must be extradited to face trial, but many more extremist journalists are still at large. One man on trial in Arusha stands out, accused of using Belgian peacekeepers to incite hatred against the Tutsis and Hutu opponents. Italian-born Georges Ruggiu, who took Belgian nationality over 20 years ago, was closely involved with hardliner Hutus and was responsible for French-language broadcasts on RTLM. He claims RTLM “did not incite racial hatred”. “We did incite people to be critical about the Rwandan Patriotic Front and some interpreted that as a call to kill Tutsis,” he is quoted as saying. “It was a station where people dared to say what they thought. But I defy anyone to find a tape of me saying ‘You must kill'”.

“Radio Democracy” – Burundi

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Burundi, RTLM found a soulmate in mid-1994 when the mainly Hutu population in the hills around Bujumbura suddenly began hearing anti-Tutsi, divisionist broadcasts. Using the same formula as RTLM, Radio Rutomorangingo (The Radio that tells the truth) played catchy music interspersed with messages to rise up against the Tutsi population. Musicians in Burundi complained about the use of their songs to attract listeners. Early broadcasts were reportedly crude in style. They called on Hutus to “finish once and for all the Tutsi oppressor”. Later recordings show the radio, which changed its name to Radio Democracy, to be more sophisticated, especially its French-language transmissions, and targeting the Tutsi-dominated army. “All Burundians, make bows and poisoned arrows, remain alert and fight the Bikomagu [former chief of staff] soldiers … we shall lead you into victory in the fighting,” the radio said in a broadcast in late 1995. The mouthpiece of the hardline Hutu rebel group Conseil national pour la defense de la democratie (CNDD), Radio Democracy with its mobile transmitter was initially based in the forests of southwest Rwanda and northwest Burundi, before finding fairly stable ground in eastern Zaire. There it continued broadcasting until CNDD’s armed wing, the Forces pour la defense de la democratie (FDD), lost its rear bases with the advance of Kabila’s Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL) in 1996.

In July 1994, Burundi radio reported that opposition parties had called on the authorities and the international community to dismantle the radio “which seems to want to start a war in our country ” and bring its founders to justice. “Just like RTLM, the radio causes friction among citizens and calls on Hutus to kill Tutsis and Hutus from opposition parties,” opposition groups claimed in a statement. Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, who was president at the time, also strongly denounced the radio for “inciting hatred”. In fact the radio was also hostile towards Ntibantunganya and his Hutu-dominated ruling FRODEBU party, opposing his attempts to gradually assimilate Hutus into the existing army. “Ntibantunganya and [Jean] Minani [FRODEBU leader] think that by misleading people, especially by telling Hutus to join the Bikomagu army, they will have deprived CNDD of its pretext…as long as the government continues to state it will not enter into dialogue with its political opponents, we shall continue to fight,” it said. In addition the radio attempted to divide Tutsis between the “bloodthirsty Bahima” from Bururi in the south where many army leaders originate from, and those from other regions, by detailing alleged atrocities committed by Tutsis towards other Tutsis. Often CNDD leader Leonard Nyangoma would go on the air himself.

“Written hate”

Disseminating hate is not confined to the radio, although as already pointed out this medium has the most impact. “Written hate” as opposed to “broadcast hate” leaves a more indelible impression as the words can be read over and over again and absorbed. Currently in northwestern Rwanda “hate leaflets” by extremist Hutus have begun appearing calling for a renewed war against the Tutsis. Similar tracts appeared in Bukavu as already mentioned. Hassan Ngeze, editor of the extremist Rwandan Hutu publication ‘Kangura’, is on trial in Arusha. In Burundi, a pro-Tutsi newspaper ‘Le Carrefour des Idees’ was suspended by the authorities in 1996, along with several other publications, under pressure from Reporteurs Sans Frontieres for headlines such as “They (Hutus) want to roast us on skewers” and “Does the Hutu have a soul?”.

Freedom of expression debate

Such moves have come under criticism in some quarters for “stifling” free opinion. Article 19, the London-based International Centre Against Censorship which lobbies for freedom of expression, believes hate radio is one of the “outgrowths” of relaxing radio controls in Africa where private stations are constantly springing up. It acknowledges that hate radio can cross the line between freedom of expression and incitement. In its publication ‘Broadcasting Genocide’, Article 19 argues that the genocide in Rwanda would have gone ahead with or without RTLM which, it says, served to propagate a carefully laid-out plan by the government and its militias to exterminate Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Whatever the arguments, RTLM’s cardinal role in the massacres and in promoting hatred to its ultimate, ghastly conclusion is undeniable. It is widely asserted that between 500,000 and a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred directly or indirectly as a result of its broadcasts. Article 19 agrees broadcasting lists of people to be tracked down and killed is unacceptable. “International law clearly permits external intervention to jam the broadcasts at this stage, and it should have been undertaken by the international community,” it says.

Monitoring and information intervention

Jamie Metzl, a former UN human rights officer, writing in ‘Foreign Affairs’, has commented that the international community must search for ways of addressing human rights abuses that accomplish more than “symbolic and generally impotent condemnations” from global bodies. One such measure, he says, would be to monitor, counter and block radio and television broadcasts that incite widespread violence in crisis zones around the world. “Mass media reach not only people’s homes but also their minds, shaping their thoughts and sometimes their behaviour”. Based on the data available by monitoring and recording, human rights officials point out information intervention is possible and necessary to stop whipping up the air waves. Metzl says limited radio and television jamming in defence of human rights is a potentially effective and low-risk tool for countering dangerous messages inciting people to violence. The head of the beleaguered UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), General Romeo Dallaire, asserted that “simply jamming Hutu broadcasts and replacing them with messages of peace and reconciliation would have had a significant impact on the course of events”. A recent Belgian parliamentary enquiry into the Rwandan genocide found that RTLM posed a severe threat to ethnic harmony before the genocide and asked the question why the station was not silenced or jammed before it could do real harm.

As the genocide unfolded in Rwanda, the BBC’s Monitoring Service and its US government partner the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) began locating frequencies and monitoring the then-rebel RPF Radio Muhabura, Radio Rwanda and RTLM as it slowly transformed itself into a clandestine radio. Monitoring is able to establish the trends and provide information for international decision-makers to act upon. It was the BBC that announced the sudden disappearance of Radio Muhabura in July 1994, the flight of RTLM’s broadcasters first to Butare, then to Gisenyi, and finally – as the RPF consolidated its victory – RTLM’s move to Zaire as a pirate radio. Human rights abuses were being incited by a radio whose broadcasts were well documented but little effort was made to silence it. In former Yugoslavia, action against an inflammatory radio was immediate. When Pale radio, supportive of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, refused to heed international calls to cease anti-NATO and anti-Moslem broadcasts, NATO troops seized several of its main broadcast towers, effectively silencing it.

“Peace radios”

Other measures include “peace radios” broadcasting impartial information to counter the hate. In the Great Lakes region, there have been a number of initiatives in this regard, the most prominent probably being Radio Agatashya. Established in August 1994 by the Swiss charity Fondation Hirondelle, it broadcast regional news primarily to hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees in their own language in Zairean camps. Describing itself as an “independent humanitarian radio”, Agatashya is keen to stress its neutrality. It expanded its operations to cover Burundi, in conjunction with an NGO Search for Common Ground which manages independent radio Studio Ijambo in Bujumbura, and it is also covering ICTR proceedings in Arusha. Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, the UN Secretary-General’s former representative in Burundi, has described Agatashya as a “success”, saying it “contributed to easing the hatred between different ethnic groups following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda”.

In Burundi, Radio Umwizero (Hope) is the brainchild of European commissioner Bernard Kouchner and tries to span the ethnic divide by targeting young people. And when the BBC launched a 15 minutes Kirundi/Kinyarwanda service in the aftermath of the genocide, to try and reunite divided families, it proved so popular the programmes were extended to include commentaries and interviews of interest to the region. Writing in ‘Focus on Africa’ magazine shortly after the service was launched, Neville Harms the former head of the BBC’s Swahili service, said the programmes would provide “reliable, factual news, untainted by a point of view or hidden agenda”. It is now one of the most popular radio stations for Kirundi/Kinyarwanda speakers. A similar service to reunite families is also provided by Voice of America radio. But even peace radios are not immune from hate. Long-time expatriates in Bukavu say that when Agatashya was broadcasting to refugees in the area, some of its translators, reportedly Interahamwe refugees, were “twisting the words”, and actually inciting hatred again.

Interpretation of hate

“Hate radio” is a difficult term to qualify. Article 19 argues that in the case of Radio Democracy for example there was no incitement to kill. But the main targets of hate radio in the Great Lakes region, notably the Tutsi population, say the messages do not have to be explicit exhortations to kill to convey hatred. One Munyamulenge in Bukavu said the message of Voix du Patriote was clear. Telling the “visitors” or “foreigners” to leave is a euphemism for an uprising against them with all the consequences this entails. Tutsis in Burundi agree. While it is difficult to find blatant calls to kill on Radio Democracy, urging the use of “bows and poisoned arrows” against the Tutsi-dominated army, by extension, applies to Tutsi civilians, they say.

The growth of hate media in the Great Lakes region is a worrying trend. Analysts say RTLM has shown it should not be ignored, rather it should be taken as an early warning. Article 19 is wary about simply banning inflammatory radios, saying the emphasis on the media tends to distract attention from the root of the problem – political and military structures which plan and carry out human rights abuses. “Inflammatory media coverage is essentially a symptom of a process resulting from other causes,” it says. It calls for promoting a plurality of views through the media in an attempt to marginalise extremist propaganda and develop a middle ground. Human rights activists point out that political and military extremism should be diluted as much as possible, including identifying and preventing tools which can be used to violate basic rights, such as the media. Radio especially is a very powerful weapon and, if misused, one of the most destructive.

Source: IRIN Nairobi, 26 February 1998

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