Wednesday, April 14, 2004


From: Reuters via Ferdinand Nahimana and Hassan Ngeze listen to their sentence of life in prison being read. Four members of Rwanda's hate media became the first "journalists" ever convicted of genocide.

One of George Orwell's favorite topics was language. Particularly, how language is perverted. Several of his essays as well his two most famous novels (Animal Farm and 1984) dealt with how totalitarians manipulate language and information to perpetrate their misdeeds and perpetuate their authoritarianism. This was used to particularly vicious effect in Rwanda.

Simply put: without the constant harranguing of hate media, the genocide would never have cost so many lives.

The most infamous of the hate media was the Radio Mille Collines (RTLM). The judge who read out Nahimana's and Ngeze's sentences noted: "RTLM broadcasts was a drumbeat calling on listeners to take action against Tutsis... RTLM spread petrol throughout the country little by little, so that one day it would be able to set fire to the whole country.

RTLM was created in April 1993, a year before the genocide started. This itself was surprising on the surface, since private broadcasters weren't especially welcomed by the dictatorship. But RTLM was allowed precisely because it was controlled by extremist elements of the regime. Radio Netherlands observed: It is widely believed that RTLM was set up to circumvent the ban imposed on "harmful radio propaganda" to which the Rwandan government had formally committed itself to in the 1993 peace agreement with the RPF.

Before the genocide, RTLM continuously demonized the RPF (rebels fighting the regime) and all Tutsis as well as the UN peacekeeping force, which it claimed had a pro-RPF bias.

Though most genocides in history have been committed by governments and their arms, the Rwandan genocide was different. Though the regime, its army and government-sponsored militias planned the genocide and gave the orders executing it, it was ordinary Rwandans who did much of the killing. Many were forced to kill, lest they be killed themselves.

The Rwandan genocide was unique in that it was a huge chunk of Rwandan society that actually carried it out. It was part of the extremists' plan to collectivize action and thus guilt. The more Rwandans who were implicated in the genocide, the more who had a stake in it being fully and successfully carried out. Hate media made this possible.

By demonizing the Tutsis collectively, it gave ordinary Hutus a scapegoat and thus a motivation to do something they wouldn't ordinarily do: kill their neighbors and relatives and friends

RTLM read off over its airwaves the names of Tutsis and moderate Hutu political opponents to be slaughtered. The hate radio's personalities exhorted the masses to exterminate the "cockroaches" (Tutsis). To send their bodies via a river back to Ethiopia (where they supposedly came from, thus reinforcing the non-existent ethnic distinction). RTLM urged the masses to "go work" and "go clean" the country because "the graves are not yet full."

Western countries never grasped how dangerous RTLM was because of cultural assumptions. Though there were newspapers spewing the same vitriol, RTLM was the most prominent. In Rwanda, illiteracy is high and newspapers are often available only in the cities so radio remains the most important medium. Though television is the primary medium in the developed world, it's impossible to overstate how influential radio is in other parts of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.

The then Canadian ambassador, Lucie Edwards, later said: "The question of Radio Mille Collines propaganda is a difficult one. There were so many genuinely silly things being said on the station, so many obvious lies, that it was hard to take it seriously... Nevertheless, everyone listened to it - I was told by Tutsis (sic) - in a spirit of morbid fascination and because it had the best music selection."

RTLM garbage seemed silly to a Canadian, who grew up in a country with a long tradition of a free and independent press. But Rwanda was a country that had lived for decades under a dictatorship preceded by decades more of paternalistic colonialism. Ambassador Edwards came from a country where skepticism of the government line was expected; Rwandans had learned that such skepticism could be hazardous to their health and well-being.

In the Rwanda chapter of her brilliant book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power presents an example which demonstrates the failure to appreciate how powerful radio is in Africa in general, and Rwanda in particular.

The head of UN peacekeepers in Rwanda, Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire, requested that RTLM's signals be jammed. US Deputy Ambassador to Rwanda Prudence Bushnell concurred and tried to convince her colleagues at the State Department to procede. As Power writes: In early May [1994], the State Department's Legal Advisers Office issued a finding against radio jamming, citing international broadcasting agreements and the American commitment to free speech. [ed. note: !!!!] When Bushnell raised radio jamming yet again at a meeting, one Pentagon official chided her for naivete: "Pru, radios don't kill people. People kill people."

It was the Pentagon official, not Bushnell, who was naive. And who knows who many lives would've been saved had Washington bureaucrats trusted those actually on the ground who knew what they were talking about.

Samantha Power has often described the US government's tolerance of genocide as a failure of imagination; the same could apply to other western governments. In most genocides, we have credible reports of atrocities, but they defy the imagination. We can't IMAGINE concentration camps in the heart of Europe in the 1990s. We can't IMAGINE anyone would use poison gas in 1988. And we believed that "radios don't kill people. People kill people."

There are times when the benefit of the doubt should be scrapped. In Rwanda, the failure of our imagination is a death sentence was hundreds of thousands.

Tommorrow: why the international community buried its head in the sand during the genocide.

Recommended reading: Dossier on hate media during the Rwandan genocide from Radio Netherlands' English service. Includes links to pages on how hate radio has been used in other parts of the world. From Radio Netherlands' English service.

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