Media & the Rwanda Genocide


Go to other Essay Series sections: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII. INTRODUCTION

It is amazing that, in a country full of outwardly beautiful people, such ugliness and evil would abide in the hearts of so many. Indeed beauty is only skin deep. In April 1994, those beautiful hands took pangas and machetes and cut up their beautiful neighbors.

In a period of just 100 days, one million Rwandans were murdered by their fellow countrymen. The genocide was carried out by Hutu extremists to exterminate Tutsis and even moderate Hutus.

The Hutus and Tutsis speak the same language and live together in Rwanda, a small Central African country sandwiched between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Tanzania. But over the years these two ethnic groups grew apart, finally coming to hate and despise each other. Prior to the genocide, the Hutus were made to believe that the Tutsi, who were mostly refugees of a similar conflict in 1959, were returning to take over the land. It is said that the conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi is in part due to foreign missionaries who made Tutsis believe they belonged to a superior class and were meant to rule over the Hutu.

As the decade of 1990s began, the Rwandan Tutsi refugees expressed a desire to return home to Rwanda, and the reigning Hutu government saw this as a possible risk to them. The government began telling the people that the returning Tutsi were their enemies whose intention was to take over the land and enslave or kill Hutus. Tutsis were not portrayed as native Rwandans seeking to come to a home that was rightfully theirs and which they could share.

The primary concern of this essay is the role the media played in propagating these negative views of Tutsi, in triggering violence, and in carrying out one of the worst atrocities in memory. This essay develops the argument that - just like machetes - the media became tools of death effectively used to carry out the genocide.

The media failed Rwanda in three different stages in the genocide: • Preparing for the genocide – misuse of the media by government • Inciting violence during the killing • Media agenda and neglect - absence of true reporting of the genocide.


The power and influence of radio cannot be denied, especially in illiterate and semi-literate communities. The radio is considered gospel truth, and for most of these communities the words ‘I heard it on the radio.’ mean a claim cannot be disputed. The government in power in Rwanda in 1994 was aware of this fact. The radio had long been used as a government mouthpiece, and citizens were used to hearing from the government via this very popular form of communication. Seeing the opportunity and radio's power, the government deliberately and subtly used the media to propagate genocidal hatred and to carry its plans to completion.

The machetes, the main tools used to kill and maim, were imported en masse into the country ahead of the genocide, but no one bothered to inquire about the need to import so many at the time. It was assumed that they would be used as agricultural implements.

Like the machetes, the notorious FM-band broadcaster Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLMC) was also a recent addition to Rwanda, having begun broadcasting in Kigali in June 1993. Then president of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana was among the radio station's shareholders, along with his close associates and advisers who were also Hutu.

"The purpose of the new radio station was to prepare the people of Rwanda for genocide," Leslie Green found. Radio became a singular propaganda weapon, and its goal was to demonize Tutsis.

No sooner had RTLMC hit the air waves than radio sets suddenly became available and affordable. It was a well-thought-out plan.

Not only could average Rwandans afford to listen to RTLMC now that radios had suddenly become cheaper, but the station's programming was also designed to appeal to the common man. RTLMC was very different from the lone government station, Radio Rwanda, that used to monopolize the airwaves. Like successful FM broadcasters anywhere in the world, the radio created a bond with the abaturagye as the citizens are known in Rwanda. RTLMC played the music Rwandans loved, and the DJs spoke their language and made them laugh.

Moreover, now they could also be heard on radio by calling in and could participate by commenting, requesting music or even sending greetings. What would have otherwise been a step in the development to popular media was in Rwanda not an innocent step but a deliberate plot to prepare a purposeful weapon.

By the time of the genocide, therefore, the people had connected with the radio and could most certainly call it their own and had a sense it was their voice. Despite the familiarity, radio maintained an authoritative voice and could not be disregarded as just another neighbour’s suggestion, which could be ignored.

RTLMC was responsible for the propagation of the inyenzi ideology that propagated the view that Tutsis were cockroaches that had to be exterminated, otherwise their continued presence would bring ruin to the community. RTLMC not only demonized the Tutsi, it also described in detail ways in which they should be killed. Later as the genocide progressed, RTLMC reported live the names of people to be killed and where they could be found for all who listened to do the needful.

The radio also attacked moderate Hutus and all those who cooperated with the Tutsi, especially those in government at the time. It specified that these too were enemies to the nation and should be eliminated. It is important to note that the radio used violent language, openly incited violence, and directed potential killers to their targets. This continued all through the genocide. Killers are said to have moved around with a machete in one hand and a small transmitter radio in the other as they swept the neighbourhoods.

According to General Romeo Dallaire, Head of the UN mission to Rwanda at the time, "RTLM was created specifically as a tool of the genocidaires to demonize the Tutsi, lay the ground work, then literally drive on the killing once the genocide started."

After the genocide began, Radio Rwanda, the official government radio station joined the campaign. In addition to the cockroach ideology, radio stations began to refer to the killing as "work" for the Hutu, and radio stations made statements such as "all Hutus owed it to the community to work hard".

People were called upon to "work" for their country and to preserve their communities. If they did not work, those who were willing to work should get rid of those who would not. Authorities took to the radio to applaud Hutus for the "good work" they were doing. They congratulated them on their vigilance and spurred them on further as the genocide proceeded.

The radio’s guns were also turned on the few foreigners who dared to speak out against the danger posed by the radio campaigns. These too were described as enemies, and the people were directed to get rid of them too.


The RTLMC campaign was further complemented by Kangura, a weekly newspaper which also carried hate propaganda against the Tutsi. Kangura started as a bi-monthly newsletter in 1990. It was clearly anti-Tutsi and - like the radio - spoke out with audacity and made no apologies for its sentiments. Rather, it vehemently and hysterically denounced the Tutsi.

The "Ten Commandments of the Hutu" section of Kangura grew to be very popular. This was hate media at its best. It clearly instructed the Hutu to have no dealings with the Tutsi, describing them as enemies of the Hutu. These are the instructions that set Hutu husbands against Tutsi wives and Hutu neighbours against their Tutsi neighbours, and ensured that they killed even the very closest friend or relative, as long as they belonged to the enemy tribe.

Kangura used history and a fabricated image of what the future could hold or turn out to be to incite the Hutu to commit to obeying the ‘ten commandments’ therein. It called for putting a quick end to the inyenzi, clearly instigating murder.


Clearly the media was used and abused by the social and political powers in carrying out the genocide. On the one hand this experience reveals the danger of state ownership of the media, and on the other hand it shows clearly the power of the media as a tool to manipulate the masses.

Media failure in the Rwanda genocide is perhaps most clearly displayed by the fact that in this modern day and age of capturing the moment, there are but a few pictures of the genocide. The absence of images and information is not due to the dangers of reporting, but because the media was simply absent at a time when they should have written, broadcast and captured on camera.

Foreign nationals had been evacuated to safer places regardless of their duties, influence and involvement in stopping the genocide. The killing went on unabated by any powerful opposing influence that could very well have intervened. Had the eyes of the West not been averted at the time - due to historic neglect of the African continent made worse by shrinking resources dedicated to foreign reporting, but also due to a celebrity scandal that kept U.S. audiences occupied - pressure could have been brought on Rwanda's Hutu by simply letting the world know what was going on.

Only a few reporters stayed in Rwanda, and even they had difficulty getting their media houses to see the importance or understand the story as it unfolded. Some of the remaining reporters did not get the truth for lack of informers and language difficulties.

Most of the reporting missed the story completely. There was more coverage of the refugees flocking into the neighbouring countries as a result of the genocide than there was coverage of the genocide itself. The photo journalist who filmed some of the only footage of the killings admits that at first he did not know the magnitude of the killing or how well organized it was.

Unfortunately, the only journalists who dared to raise an alarm were not successful in getting the gory stories past editors who censored the worst of the material. The foreign media houses explained that they needed to show less "disturbing" material because their viewers were sensitive.

The failure of the media in the Rwandan genocide extends to the sin of omission - absence of the media at a time when it was desperately needed and could have contributed to curbing a catastrophe. When the genocide ended and the war was over, loads of journalists arrived in Kigali. Most of the photographs we have of the genocide are images of the carnage that remained, and the dry bones of victims by then long dead.

The war was over, and it was safe to report.


This tragic episode raises important, difficult and far-reaching questions that we must ask ourselves so as to ensure that history does not repeat itself and to ensure that we learn our lessons.

Media are indeed powerful tools. This we know. How best should they be used? This we also know.

More importantly, how can we prevent those who would misuse media from doing so? Who controls the media to ensure that it is not abused? When the state goes astray and takes control of media voices, what can we as journalists do?

Perhaps media practitioners need to develop an oath like the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath that determines the way we operate and ensures we are not used by anyone who would abuse media tools. This oath would underscore media's responsibility to defend the common good and establish a commitment to do what is right, to report, and to broadcast for the good of all humanity, regardless of who employs us.

At the end of the day, we must also ask who sets the international media agenda. Rwanda was simply not important enough to take up airtime and to find the resources for journalists to go and report on the country. In that same span of time in 1994, the first post-apartheid South African elections were important enough to get coverage. So, too, the O.J. Simpson murder trial in the U.S. was covered extensively during this same period.

Yet the killing of one million people in a small Central African country somehow did not merit any attention.

The question of setting the media agenda is essential to consider, in light of the evidence displayed in the 1994 Rwanda genocide, even if the question defies easy answers. Is it the objective importance of the event or the popularity of the event in our audience and readers' eyes that should dictate our reporting choices?

As the events in Rwanda teach us, answering that question was - and will be again someday - a life-and-death decision.