Debate continues about the media’s role in driving Rwanda’s genocide

Inside the Genocide Memorial Church in Karongi-Kibuye - Western Rwanda. 11,000 people were killed here during the 1994 genocide. Adam Jones/WikiMedia

Twenty-five years ago, the Rwandan government launched a meticulously planned genocide against its Tutsi minority. It killed approximately 800 000 people in 100 days.

We can’t reflect on the history of the 1994 genocide without considering the critical role the media played in both inciting and prolonging the violence.

In the summer of 1993 the government, ruled by the pro-Hutu National Revolutionary Movement for Development, engaged in a peace process with the mostly-Tutsi rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. They negotiated an end to the civil war and the repatriation of Tutsi exiles. At the same time, however, the Movement was also preparing for genocide.

The youth wing of the National Revolutionary Movement for Development established the Interahamwe. This paramilitary group would eventually lead attacks on Tutsi civilians. Hardliners from the party also launched Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM - French for “Thousand Hills Free Radio and Television”). It was a radio station that disseminated hate propaganda and prepared its listeners for the coming violence. The broadcaster provided a popular platform for ideas already circulating in Kangura, an extremist magazine founded in 1990.

In its early broadcasts, the station used Radio Rwanda’s transmission equipment. The new broadcaster developed lively, informal and accessible programming that targeted ordinary citizens. Unlike Radio Rwanda, it played popular music from neighbouring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). This was particularly appealing to younger listeners.

In the weeks prior to the April 1994 genocide the station ramped up its anti-Tutsi, pro-Hutu propaganda. Broadcasters used increasingly dehumanising language to speak about the Tutsi minority. This mobilised ordinary Hutu citizens against the Tutsi. Historian Alison Des Forges wrote that, once the genocide was underway, government leaders used the station to promote violence. It also gave specific directions for carrying out the killings.

A quarter of a century on, media scholars, historians and journalists are still debating the precise role of RTLM in the genocide. Did radio broadcasts directly incite violence? Or did they simply amplify the fear and genocidal ideology that was already circulating throughout the Hutu population?

Media effects

Most early scholarship about the genocide views RTLM as a lethal influence. In 2001, researcher, war correspondent and diplomat Samantha Power suggested that,

killers often carried a machete in one hand and a transistor radio in the other.

The refusal of international actors like the US and the UN Security Council to use radio jamming technology to stop RTLM’s broadcasts is another flash-point for discussion. It reflects the general failure of the international community to intervene and stop the genocide.

More recent studies question the primacy of radio broadcasts in directly motivating the killers’ actions. These scholars see radio as an extension of years of state propaganda which was disseminated through schools, churches, and other government institutions.

In a detailed empirical study published in 2007, social scientist Scott Straus found that only 15% of perpetrators cited radio broadcasts as a key influence in their decision to kill Tutsi. Face-to-face intimidation and communication between peers appeared to have a stronger influence. Radio broadcasts were a secondary factor.

Enduring debate

The enduring debate about the role of media was central to a case before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The tribunal was tasked with prosecuting high level perpetrators and the masterminds of the genocide. The defendants in what was known as the Media Case included RTLM co-founder Ferdinand Nahimana, its executive Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza and Kangura founder and editor, Hassan Ngeze.

In 2003, all three were convicted of genocide, incitement to commit genocide, and persecution using radio broadcasts and newspaper articles as a crime against humanity. The conviction for committing genocide was overturned on appeal, but much of the original ruling was retained.

The Media Case was precedent-setting. It held media executives accountable for inciting genocide, regardless of other factors that may have influenced the perpetrators. Legal scholars suggest that the judgement will have a significant impact on future cases of incitement to genocide.

International response

We may never definitively settle the “media effects” debate – that is, did radio and other media directly incite violence, or were they a secondary driver?

But the establishment of RTLM in 1993 was undoubtedly a clear warning sign to the world. In a 2000 report, the Organisation of African Unity suggested that silencing RTLM during the genocide would have had limited impact. The international community should have moved to address the hate propaganda before the killing started. It should have recognised the broadcasts as an essential part of the preparation for the genocide.

One mechanism for countering RTLM’s hate propaganda could have come from the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda, which was deployed by the Security Council in 1993 to oversee the peace process. However, due to typical delays, the Mission’s radio broadcast equipment was never shipped to Rwanda. The absence of an effective communication tool left the UN without the means to produce counter broadcasts. It could also not provide airtime for the voices of moderate Hutu leaders.

Lessons remain

Although many years have passed, the Rwandan genocide still has much to teach us about the centrality of media in cases of state violence. An analysis of media opens up important discussions about genocide prevention, the regulation of hate speech, and the appropriate forms of international intervention.