In conflict, the media play an important role: shedding light on events and calling for action to stop the death or injury of innocents. But the media can also play an opposing and less virtuous role, fuelling conflict and promoting violence. And both before and during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, this was the case in Rwanda.
Before 1991, Rwanda did not have a media law. In October 1990, when the RPA launched the liberation war, there were five public media companies. Three of them – Radio Rwanda, Imvaho and La Nouvelle Relève – were publically owned, while the other two, Kinyamateka and Dialogue, were owned by the Catholic Church.
In 1988, Vincent Rwabusisi, who went by the alias Ravi, created the first private paper called Kanguka (Wake Up). It received a warm welcome; an indication of how hungry people were for information. This demand convinced successful businessman Valence Kajeguhakwa, who, apparently, had problems with President Juvénal Habyarimana, to support the paper financially.
The success registered by Kanguka saw the rise in 1990 of another paper named Kangura (To awaken). Kangura was sponsored by Hutu extremists, initially as a response to Kanguka.
In October of that year, Hassan Ngeze, Kangura’s editor, published the infamous ten Hutu commandments which explicitly promoted discrimination against the Tutsi. The eighth commandment, for example, called on all Hutus not to have any mercy on Tutsis.
Then, on February 9, 1991, Kangura published an article titled, “Let us learn about the Inkotanyi [RPA supporters] and let us exterminate every last one of them.”
Beyond stoking hatred of the Tutsi and glorifying their persecution, Ngeze’s message was clear: all Hutus must spread and teach these commandments. This stance was derived from decades-old rhetoric.
“The Social Revolution of 1959, the Referendum of 1961, and the Hutu Ideology, must be taught to every Hutu at every level. Every Hutu must spread this ideology widely. Any Hutu who persecutes his Hutu brother for having read, spread, and taught this ideology is a traitor.”
By saying the ideology applied to all Hutu, the commandments called for unity against a “common enemy” – so killing unarmed Tutsi was considered self-defence. It also meant those who did not hate the Tutsi were traitors, deserving a similar fate.
But Kangura was not the only publication preaching this ideology. Other papers, both public and religious owned, did so too.
Orinfor, which managed state-owned Radio Rwanda, Imvaho and La Nouvelle Relève, called on the Hutu to rise against the Tutsi, as did the dozen or so private publications. No media strayed from spreading messages of hate.
The rise of RTLM
At the start of the Genocide, Kangura had stopped publishing but a more potent hate media was on air. Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) was a private radio launched by Hutu power extremists in July 1993.
It was started by Ferdinand Nahimana, but financed by very prominent figures, including President Habyarimana, Felicien Kabuga, Théoneste Bagosora and others like Pascal Simbikangwa, who was recently convicted and sentenced by a French court to 25 years in jail for complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity.
Félicien Kabuga, the main bankroller of both Kangura and RTLM, called radio station the “defender of Hutu Power” – the ideology behind the Genocide.
In the months leading up to the Genocide, RTLM denounced ‘traitors’ – calling for their elimination, which came swiftly once the targeted killings began.
But beyond threatening ‘traitors’, RTLM explicitly called for the annihilation of the Tutsi, urging “the faithful Hutu” to ‘cut down the tall trees’ and cheering on killers during the Genocide with, “You must go back there and finish them off. The graves are not yet full!”
Journalists such as Hassan Ngeze, Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean Bosco Barayagwiza have since been convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) for incitement to genocide and crimes against humanity, and RTLM presenter Valerie Bemeriki was convicted through the Gacaca courts and is serving a life term.
This makes a crucial statement that no amount of freedom of expression should allow for the propagation of hate speech and incitement to war or genocide.
However, we continue to see, especially around Genocide commemoration period, media the world over being used to revise history and negate the Genocide against the Tutsi. Some journalists and publications even actively promote denial and theories of double genocide.
Examples include Bernard Lugan, André Guichoua, Pierre Pean of Marianne, and Marie Roger Biloa.
Have we not learnt from the past? How long will we continue to tolerate hate speech, in any form, under the guise of freedom of speech?
Hate media fuelled the most efficient genocide of the 20th century, and if we say never again, this commitment must begin with the media.
Dr Jean-Damascène Bizimana is a senator and author of recently published a book, “Inzira ya Jenoside Yakorewe Abatutsi” on sale at Ikirezi Bookshop in Kigali or at Ibis Hotel in Huye.