- The Media and the Rwanda Genocide
The hate radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) was like “the voice of the devil” (18), a “conversation among Rwandans who knew each other well” (44), “the sole source of authority for interpreting [the news’s] meaning” (125), “bullets in a gun” (293), a “textbook case of broadcasting genocide” (308), and “quotidian” (108).
In this absorbing collection of essays on the role of domestic and international media in the Rwanda genocide, perhaps the only shared perspective among contributors is the horror of the genocide itself. Controversies about the role and the impact of the media emerge through lively disagreements about audiences’ reactions, journalists’ responsibilities, and media’s legal and political impact. The editor, Allan Thompson, assembles an unrivaled group of experts who closely observed the media related to the Rwandan genocide and who prosecuted those responsible for RTLM.
After introductory statements, notably one from Roméo Dallaire describing his interactions with Rwandan and international media as head of UNAMIR, part 1 focuses on Rwandan hate media. With characteristically scrupulous research, Alison Des Forges explains why Human Rights Watch called for jamming RTLM broadcasts, based on its links to assassinations and massacres. Other chapters analyze archived broadcasts and articles to show that RTLM and the newspaper Kangura “incited [people] to mass murder” (122). By comparison, chapters presenting data from Rwandans’ perspectives make more moderated claims. Jean-Marie Higiro, the director of Rwandan Information until April 1994, limits the influence of the tumultuous Rwandan press he was assigned to observe only to the Kigali elites. Darryl Li and Charles Mironko quote from anthropological interviews with confessed prisoners to argue that Rwandans were not passive receptacles of RTLM broadcasts and that RTLM was among many factors that reinforced and normalized face-to-face calls to violence.
Part 2 examines the international media. Most of the section reverberates with journalists’ excoriations of the lack of coverage and understanding of the Rwandan genocide. Particularly notable pieces include Mark Doyle’s straightforward account of his struggle to cover the genocide from Kigali, and Lindsey Hilsum’s report on the tightly knit and dysfunctional relationship between international media and aid agencies in the context of the Goma refugee crisis. Steven Livingston, an academic, advances the most heretical argument of the book—that media coverage has no effect on international policy. This so-called realist account of international relations does not amass enough data ultimately to be convincing, but it is an antidote to some contributors’ assumption that “but for. . . ” disinterested editors, squeamish audiences, lack of video footage, and so on, international [End Page 228] political responses to the genocide would have been different.
This latter claim about the power of international media is particularly questionable in the shadow of the current Darfur genocide (which the book rarely mentions). In his conclusion, Thompson claims that (traditional) media also ignored Darfur, but he himself ignores the role of the Internet in promoting Darfur information and activism. Moreover, no contributor points to the larger contradiction that, despite media and governmental proclamations of genocide (in contrast to the “definitional dancing” on Rwanda), little has been accomplished in halting the violence in Sudan.
Part 3 centers on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s (ICTR) prosecution of Rwandan hate media, or the “Media Trial.” Thompson reprints the ICTR’s lucid, pathbreaking summary judgment, on which lawyers from the prosecution, defense, and outside organizations comment. Simone Monasebian of the prosecution argues fluently for the importance of considering the media in context, while Jean-Marie Biju-Duval rests his defense on precedents established at Nuremburg. Binaifer Nowrojee criticizes the prosecution for repeatedly downgrading sexual violence to a low priority.
Part 4 outlines strategies for media training, monitoring, and intervention to prevent violence. Philippe Dahinden of Fondation Hirondelle describes the philosophy and practice of broadcasting accurate news and other types of “peace media” (such as entertainment-education soap operas) in fragile and conflict-ridden states. Also notable...