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Rwanda genocide 30 years on: Cautionary tale for the media

Rwanda commemorates the large-scale slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in April each year. The deadly carnage that lasted for 100 days shattered the myth of African unity and made a mockery of the interventionist role of the international community. When the bloodletting finally stopped and the guns fell silent across different parts of Rwanda in 1994, about one million lay dead. However, it is the unforgettable role of the mass media in fanning the flames of hate speech by inciting mostly Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi militias to dehumanise their victims before killing them.

Politicians used print media and local radio stations to dehumanise the Tutsis as cockroaches – filthy and unwanted creatures – who deserved nothing but mass extermination. Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) – co-owned and financed by génocidaire Felicien Kabuga – is singled out for fuelling tensions by calling for the slaughter of Tutsis through coded language that was familiar to militias that had orders to kill. The radio broadcasts, according to media historians, largely contributed to the mass murder.

Back home, after end of the 2007-2008 post-election violence that erupted after the disputed election of President Mwai Kibaki that left more than 1,100 dead and 600,000 displaced, once again, radio was blamed for broadcasting hateful speech. Radio journalist, Joshua Sang, was dragged to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity. Through his reportedly popular show, Lenee Emet, broadcast on Kass FM, Sang was thrust on the spotlight for accusations of incitement. While he was later acquitted of all the charges in 2016, the case became a watershed moment for the Kenyan media and resulted in a series of reforms.

Today, the Media Council of Kenya recommends that when covering religious or ethnic conflict, it is important that there should be “proper verification of facts and presented with due caution and restraint” to create an “atmosphere of…national harmony, amity and peace.” The regulator cautions against broadcasts or articles likely to worsen communal tensions or commentaries and news reports “likely to inflame passions.”

Conflict reporting has often reached its peak during general elections when the media tend to get excited and are more likely to cross the boundaries of the watchdog responsibility. This often happens when all manner of statements by politicians are broadcast and published without analysis and caution.

More importantly, the expansion of the media space, which now includes digital platforms that are increasingly challenging to regulate, means that training on responsible reporting and awareness about historic events such as the Rwandan genocide is critical. Media courses that broadly teach journalism students the interplay between the press and social harmony will profoundly inculcate a culture of tolerance that is, in turn, reflected in coverage that reports the facts, but without inciting people to violence.

Responsible reporting does not equal self-censorship, as was the case during the 2013 general election when the mainstream media, out of either state intimidation or outright guilt for playing a role in the 2007-2008 violence, abandoned its role to inform the public objectively, such as ignoring rumours of rigging that circulated online and among a section of Kenyans. This was repeated during the 2017 polls when viewers and readers alike were treated to the comical spectacle of a man enjoying a meal of githeri amidst a tense presidential election that was later nullified by the Supreme Court. It was thus when traditional media earned the pejorative nickname, ‘githeri media’.

Thirty years later, the scars of Rwandan genocide have not healed. Each new year brings illuminating revelations about what humanity can do to avert another genocide. Have the media learned their lessons from that painful catastrophe? Maybe. Maybe not. Western media outlets have been heavily criticised for their slanted coverage of the Israeli aggression on Palestinians that has left a trail of destruction and indescribable suffering to a scale never witnessed before in the decades-old conflict. An irate South Africa went to the International Court of Justice to have Israel charged with acts of genocide. History is repeating itself. Once again, the media stand accused.

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