The media and the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi

As Rwandans and the world in general commemorate 20 years of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, it is clear that the Genocide was caused by a number of factors including the media.
It is believed that the media, without raising any hand or weapon, greatly contributed to the outbreak of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. (File)
It is believed that the media, without raising any hand or weapon, greatly contributed to the outbreak of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. (File)

As Rwandans and the world in general commemorate 20 years of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, it is clear that the Genocide was caused by a number of factors including the media. The New Times’ Collins Mwai interviewed Dr Zachary Kaufman, an attorney, legal academic, political scientist, writer, public speaker, and social entrepreneur as well as a lecturer at Yale and Harvard universities who spoke about the role of the media in causing the Genocide and the transitional justice systems employed after the Genocide to bring the perpetrators to book. Dr Kaufman also worked at both the ICTR and ICC.

What roles did the Rwandan media play in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi?

The media and by that I mean both the newspaper Kangura as well as two radio stations; Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines  and  Radio Rwanda, helped incite the Genocide.

They published and aired hostile propaganda that dehumanised and demonised the Tutsi. The media blamed the Tutsi for precisely what the Hutu Genocidaires were doing, which was planning and perpetrating the Genocide. As part of the dehumanisation process, the media for many years compared the Tutsi to insects and animals like hyenas, and in doing so managed to convince the Hutu to think of the former as less human.

It was particularly effective because Rwanda at the time did not have adequate access to outside information. There was no opportunity to challenge the truthfulness of what the media was publishing and broadcasting and  that unfortunately compelled  some people to believe whatever they were hearing.

On the execution side, on April 6, 1994, following the shooting down of president Habyarimana’s plane, the radio instantly blamed the Tutsi and said the incident was an indication that the Tutsi were planning a genocide and that they were already starting to execute the Hutu. 

The radio urged the Hutu to  pre-emptively take action, that they should erect road blocks, and start killing and even pointed out certain locations and individuals that should be targeted.

Do you think the Genocide could have taken place if the media had been more liberal and professional?

This is hard to tell because in other situations throughout history where there have been atrocities, there has been more open access to information.

For example, in the years leading up to the Holocaust, the genocide of Jews, there was a lot of propaganda against Jews as being conspiratorial and less human yet Germany and the rest of the European countries were not as closed off to outside information as Rwanda was in the years leading up to 1994 but the murder of 6 million Jews still occurred. So whether this one factor could have changed the tide is hard to tell. There were so many factors that led to the Genocide against the Tutsi, so I do not think a liberal media could have changed much.

By your light, has the media undertaken any reforms to ensure that what happened in 1994 cannot happen again?

It is not just the media, their audiences too. I have been impressed with broadcast and print publications, including The New Times. These media outlets seem much more balanced  in their approach to journalism. They seem to take much more seriously the responsibility of relying on factual information through quoting experts and reports. They also cover events outside Rwanda.

Also since the Genocide, Rwandans have become much more critical in their analysis of the information they receive and this is partly attributed to the advancement in the educational system and critical thinking. The Genocide also provided relevant lessons. People learnt that because there was no challenge or criticism to what was being told by authorities, anarchy befell the nation.

It is, therefore, society’s responsibility to be much more critical when analysing information even when it is from authorities and the press.

So I credit the media for being much more professional, balanced and focused on conveying factual information. I cannot say it is perfect but at least it is much better.

Was there justice done to the media practitioners accused of playing a role in the Genocide?

There was a joint prosecution at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda which came to be known as the media case and it was of some for the leaders of Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines and Kangura newspaper. Part of the reason why the prosecution even moved forward was that there was recognition that the media had played a critical role in the perpetration of the Genocide. Many felt that justice needed to be done to the media as well.  

At the trial, media personalities were convicted. The trial judge said: “Without raising a hand or using any weapon, you are responsible for the deaths of thousands of individuals” (not exact quote). This case set precedent in international criminal law, because it was the first of its kind where mere speech was considered a type of genocidal crime. One of the legacies of the Genocide against the Tutsi, is precisely that international law now recognises the role that media can play in atrocities including genocide.

What is your take on the justice model employed after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi?

There is not just one but four main justice models. There were four main transition justice mechanisms that have been implemented since the Genocide. The UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the foreign courts that have domestically prosecuted suspected genocidaires who fled there and are on their soil. The third mechanism is the ordinary courts and the fourth, is Gacaca courts, in no particular order.

Under what circumstances was ICTR founded?  What are some of the criticisms and responses since its inception?

The ICTR was created on November 8, 1994 by a resolution of the UN Security Council. It was the second UN tribunal ever to be created. The first one was created for the former Yugoslavia.

Initially a section of Rwandans requested for the ICTR’s creation. There were various calls that the UN should create a special tribunal owing to the grievous nature of the crime.

Some say the United Nations decided to create the tribunal to help surge the guilt felt by those who decided not to intervene militarily. That is debatable and it is a sort of criticism.

A flipside to that would be that the officials who decided to be involved did so because they viewed it as a necessary response especially after what had happened in the Balkans, just before and that the scale in Rwanda was higher. They had to do at least as much for Rwanda.

In many ways the response to what happened in the Balkans by the international community directly contributed to  what happened in the case of Rwanda. The statue that was drafted and created was actually used to create the Rwandan tribunal.

There have been many criticisms of the tribunal since its inception. One of them is that it has entirely been too costly. Another is that it has taken too long, and dealt with too few cases.

The response to some of the criticisms, especially by officials who participate in the tribunal are that it was a relatively new experiment in justice and that even despite the criticisms, the ICTR has made significant contributions to criminal justice and reconciliation. For example it set the way in aspects like media prosecution and the quantification of rape and sexual violence as aspects could constitute to genocide. It was also the first tribunal to indict a former head of state for genocide.

Although the ICTR has not been perfect, it has achieved a lot, especially considering the fact that it deals with complex cases.

Foreign courts have had a role in the prosecution of Genocide suspects, how  has the process been considering that some have been accused of not doing enough?

There are at least 10 countries that have either considered or actually brought charges to suspected genocidaires. But there have been a lot of criticisms to this process. One is that it has taken entirely too long. Some of the cases have been very recent and it is now 20 years since the Genocide. Another criticism is that these charges have been brought against few people and yet many suspected genocidaires have found sanctuary in foreign  countries and are living there with impunity.

Some of the responses are themselves experiments in justice. They are usually brought under two legal authorities which include;  universal legal jurisdiction, meaning that there are some crimes so heinous that they can be prosecuted by any jurisdiction in which the suspects are found. This is controversial because some claim it is too tenuous a connection and that there is no actualdomestic law that authorises such prosecution. The second legal authorities under which these cases have been brought is some sort of domestic law that enables the prosecution of people who have committed crimes in foreign territories but are now on the territory of the state that is bringing the charge. 

To do so,  some of the countries did not have that law in place before, they had to introduce the law. Now we have a situation where at least 10 countries have brought forth such charges or are seriously thinking about doing so. In the situations where they have, they do not necessarily just bring charges of criminal law in terms of genocidal crimes; some of the charges are about lying in immigration documents, example in the United States, there was a case of Beatrice Munyenyezi. It was alleged that she had played a role in the Genocide against the Tutsi, charges were brought against her, not for genocide but for lying on her immigration documents about the circumstances that led her to apply for asylum in the US. It was on that charge that she was prosecuted and convicted.

How suitable were Gacaca courts as a transitional justice mechanism?

When ICTR was incepted, there was an acknowledgement that the capacity of the tribunal was going to be insufficient to deal with the magnitude of the perpetrators. Even as early as 1994, immediately after the Genocide, there was an acknowledgement that more needed to be done. The question would then be what more. The Rwandan government had ordinary courts which were used to address a portion of the Genocide cases and left a majority of them unaddressed.

It was felt that at the time, a new mechanism needed to be used to address a majority of the cases, Gacaca had been used in Rwanda in the past for less significant crimes, often petty crimes at a local level. It was looked at as a mechanism to be used in addressing these crimes.

The virtue that was identified was that not only would it be a mechanism in dealing with a backlog of cases, but also it would be a way for Rwandans themselves to participate in the justice mechanism as an aspect of reconciliation.

Some people estimate that almost every single Rwandan adult participated in Gacaca as either a judge, a defendant, a testifier, witness or as an observer. The system was so extensive and, in many ways, it has been viewed as the transition justice system in history that has had the greatest scale.


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