NEUTRALISING THE VOICES OF HATE: BROADCASTING AND GENOCIDE
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
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 génocidaires
"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
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
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
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
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.
* NOTE FOR EDITORS: Please note that this editorial was commissioned from
the author for Pambazuka News. If you would like to use this article for
your publication, please do so with the following credit: "This article
first appeared in Pambazuka News, an electronic newsletter for social
justice in Africa, www.pambazuka.org". Editors are also encouraged to make a
Further details: http://www.pambazuka.org/index.php?id=21172