It was early spring 2008 when I first encountered the beauty and complexities of the country of the thousand hills, Rwanda. From the muddy red roads swirling through green hills into the more urban center of Kigali, I noticed purple flags waving in the wind, which at a first glance provide comfort and a welcoming sight. The dots of purple have emerged themselves into the landscape just as the small cooking fires, roadside passengers and the banana trees. These purple flags, however, now so quietly present, mark the sites of horror. They mark the memorials with graves, bones, skulls, photos and stories of a massacre that killed close to a million Rwandan Tutsi and moderate Hutus during a killing spree that lasted the months of April to July of 1994. Years later after starting a career in the field of media, it is these colored purple flags that established a new meaning to me. They have become a symbol of importance to an independent press and the role of journalism in building, monitoring and protecting peace, freedom and democracy.
Today on World Press Freedom Day 2019, the challenges that independent press and journalism face seem far removed from the atrocities that once occurred during those one hundred days in Rwanda, 25 years ago. Yet, when analyzing the role of media in inciting violence during the genocide of Rwanda and when taking a closer look at the political rhetoric that dominates our own media today, as well as the online hate speech and misinformation, one can only hope that the lessons of the dangers of spreading hatred and violence through mass media are learned, acknowledged and implemented.
The Role of Media in the Rwandan Genocide
Last month on April 7th a 100-day mourning period started in remembrance of the Rwandan genocide, now 25 years ago. During the genocide, seventy percent of the Tutsi minority and over ten percent of this small country’s total population were wiped out, brutally killed with machetes and other forms of extreme violence, including rapes and a rushing spread of HIV/AIDS. Half of the population was internally displaced or had fled the country. It is estimated that 130,000 people took an active part in the killings. How is it possible that so many ordinary citizens turned into murderers?
We cannot look back at the events of the Rwandan genocide without acknowledging the critical role media played in preparing, motivating, inciting and accelerating the violence. What first started with newspapers as a spillover from neighboring countries, radio transmitters had become the number one means of spreading hate speech by the time of the genocide. Together with state newspaper Kangura and Radio Rwanda, broadcaster Radio TélévisionLibre des Mille Collines (RTLM) managed to enlarge and exploit the already divided society due to a mostly artificial ethnic distinction, into the massacre intended to “exterminate” the Tutsi population.
This distinction and the power struggle between Hutus and Tutsi’s had been in existence, but was inflamed and formalized into a rigid structure by Belgian colonial authorities who favored a Tutsi elite and started to ID tag Tutsi, Hutu and Twa (the original inhabitants and largely marginalized group in Rwanda) in the 1930s. Fifty-five years later, this policy made the Tutsi minority all the more vulnerable when the Hutu militia hunt them down with their machetes. After independence in 1962, the Hutu government continued this practice and started disseminating anti-Tutsi propaganda through leaflets, newspapers and radio.
The radio station RTLM, which had become popular under youth because of its pop music, did not only disseminate hate propaganda, it mobilized ordinary Hutu citizens to turn against their Tutsi neighbors, colleagues, friends and even their own family members. The radio station gave the starting sign to kill “the cockroaches,” the term used to refer to Tutsi Rwandans. It even gave specific directions for carrying out the killings.
While scholars still debate the direct role of media in the killings due to the complex history of the country and the genocide itself, including the painful failure of any international intervention in these horrors, several journalists from RTLM received heavy sentences for their role in the ’94 genocide. At the Rwandan tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania in 2003, three media leaders received life long sentences and up to 35 years in prison. According to the prosecutor, without this radio station through which journalists incited hatred and gave exact locations of where Tutsis were hiding, the genocide would not have caused this many lives and would not have been able to spread as fast as it did.
World Press Freedom Day, a Day of Reflection
As UNESCO states online: “3 May acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.” With the genocide commemoration, just last month and the 100-day mourning period ongoing, this day of reflection of press freedom provides for the necessary momentum to never forget what happened in those spring days of ’94 and what we as media professionals, as well as news consumers and online multimedia users, should learn from Rwanda.
Reflecting on what happened, imperative topics of discussion should be brought to the table on violence prevention, the regulation of hate speech, state organized violence and group discrimination, as well as the level of international intervention or lack thereof. Today on World Press Freedom Day 2019, these issues are as important as they were then. Only now, incitements of hate and violence are happening on online platforms and have taken different forms of dissemination and focus, within a new media landscape.
Political Narrative and Coverage in News Outlets
Firstly, in terms of language the “us versus them” rhetoric used had over the years been increasing and strengthened both by state powers and in the Rwandan media. As the Human Security Centre writes on the media as a tool of war: “Generally, group formation, per se, is not the source of conflict, but conflict is likely to arise if distinct groups are extremely exclusive and group members perceive their security to be under threat. This was to become evident in Rwanda by the early 1990s.” The publishing of the “Ten Commandments” for Hutu Power published in 1990 in the Kangura newspaper with no alternative media to counter it is one example.
The “us against them” divide is a narrative and tactic not uncommon in contemporary politics elsewhere. Terms as “Islamization” or “Westernization” are used to create fear. “They” are coming and taking over our values, our jobs, our lives. “We” are no longer safe and need to protect ourselves. The narrative of “we come first” and “building a wall” used in US politics, or a statement like “we want fewer Moroccans” for which Dutch politician Geert Wilders has to defend himself in court, have become common statements rather than the exception. However, what at first seemed to be mere rhetoric of serving sensational political gain and attention, has now in the case of the US resulted in actual policies of banning whole groups and nations of people from entering the country; a discriminatory policy at its core.
When analyzing this language of politicians and opinion leaders, media and newsrooms are debating how much airtime should be given to such statements, but are simultaneously struggling with staying afloat in the financially difficult situation the news industry is in. By being increasingly under pressure of generating likes, clicks and shares online, independent journalism is suffering. If the Brexit vote and the Trump election tell us anything, it is that “us versus them” has become increasingly popular among the general public and thus media feel that this is what should be covered. This language is extremely dangerous however and is making already marginalized groups even more vulnerable targets. What we learn from the history of Rwanda is that language matters. Careful and sensitive reporting as well as providing a counter narrative is highly needed if we want to prevent further polarization and escalation within our fragile societies.
Online Hate Speech and Spread of Misinformation
We should not limit ourselves to only address the news coverage by professional media outlets and to journalism ethics. State-organized propaganda, hate speech and targeting of dissidents have moved to the digital sphere as well. In the case of Iran, to name one example of an extremely sophisticated and organized effort of discriminatory propaganda, you could speak of an online army with massive offline effects to the lives of people, the shaping of thought and silencing of voices. Where radio caused the rapid spread of hate speech and information in the Rwandan case, now with online technologies this has become more immense and ever challenging.
In addition to state organized efforts, with user-content driven platforms such as social media websites and messaging apps to the availability of every user with a smartphone and access to the Internet, everyone becomes a publisher of content and an anonymous publisher if desired. Hiding behind an unknown IP address with an alias account and profile, spreading misinformation and targeted hate speech has become easily perpetrated, hard to trace and fight.
The spread of fake news is not limited to political dirt throwing in election time and can have far-reaching, violent consequences. A few latest examples of the less innocent effects of the rapid spread of misinformation include false messages and rumors of child kidnapping shared widely on Facebook and Snapchat and through WhatsApp. The messages incited hatred and led to the attacking of Roma people in the suburbs of Paris and to killing mobs in both Mexico and India, leading to the death of dozens. This illustrates exactly how easily violence spreads among ordinary citizens, as was also witnessed in the Rwandan case.
Blocking access to social media to prevent the spread of misinformation, such as happened after the Sri Lanka attacks for fear of spreading hate speech and inciting violence via these platforms, is not the answer. Hate speech, fake news and misinformation cannot and should not be fought with censorship. While Prime Minister Ardern of New Zealand suggests stricter regulations and revised social-media laws following the attack on Christchurch, of which live videos of the attacks were circulating online, the tech companies are experimenting with self-regulatory systems including centralized black-listing of what could not be specific content only but may involve complete accounts and websites. Minister Ardern, backed by French president Macron, will invite tech executives to the table on May 15 to talk about blocking extremist content. Censorship based on automated filtering should worry us greatly, just as fact checking left in the hands of automated technology. Irreversible mistakes are made as we have seen on the YouTube information banner added to videos of a burning Notre-Dame, accidentally linking to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A painful example of algorithm supposed to provide “context” gone wrong.
Why we Continue to Need Journalism
The lesson we should learn here is that we continue to need human intervention, independent media and journalists. We need this in order to take action in tackling hate speech and violent propaganda in whatever shape, way or form it comes, whoever the source may be. While the digital new world allows for freedom of expression to thrive via accessible sharing and publishing content platforms, that freedom of expression must not be abused and the irreplaceable role of independent journalism needs to be taken seriously and be supported. Furthermore, the international community should be alert, aware and invest in countering hate speech perpetrated by states and not only to those that are foreign to them but take a critical look much closer to home.
Only by conducting truly independent reporting and quality journalism, which includes: fact checking; challenging politicians; informing citizens; inspiring critical thinking; giving a voice to and humanize those most marginalized; by monitoring online content and countering false and hateful messages, we can do justice to those who suffer from the most senseless crimes on earth as the Rwandans have. Journalists do much more than reporting news events. On this world press freedom day, we should all take a moment to reflect and consider the value of independent and peaceful journalism, support it and strengthen it, in order to save lives and learn from history.
*Rieneke Van Santen has conducted comparative research of peace media in the Great Lakes Region in Sub-Saharan Africa and is the Executive Director of Zamaneh Media, an independent multimedia platform for Iran operating from Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
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