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‘Writing an article is not the same as using an Uzi’

Last week three Rwandan media executives were found guilty of genocide for publishing 'hateful content'. One of their lawyers talks to Brendan O'Neill about the implications for international press freedom.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘I think it was an insane decision. It is not only a blow to the convicted, but I would argue that it is also a blow to freedom of the press internationally.’ John Floyd III – a brash African-American lawyer from Washington, DC – is still smarting from the verdict of guilty of genocide given to the three Rwandan media executives at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanazania, one of whom he has defended for the past three years.

The United Nations Tribunal is judging on the calamitous events that took place in Rwanda in 1994, when a brutal conflict broke out between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis. An estimated 800,000 people were killed in 100 days, the majority of them Tutsis.

On 3 December 2003, Hassan Ngeze, owner of the twice-monthly pro-Hutu newspaper Kangura, Ferdinand Nahimana, controller of the popular pro-Hutu radio station RTLM, and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, co-founder of RTLM, were found guilty of genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide and crimes against humanity. So journalism can now cause genocide – as one correspondent said in response to the verdict: ‘Yes, words can kill…. men armed only with words can commit genocide.’ (1) You don’t have to have any truck with Hutu militias to be concerned about the implications of this judgement.

The media executives were said to have ‘poisoned the minds’ of Rwandans and ‘inflamed tensions’ during the events of 1994; Ngeze and Nahimana were sentenced to life imprisonment; Barayagwiza was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment.

The judges in Arusha ruled that Kangura newspaper and RTLM radio station helped to ‘fan the flames’ of the conflict, by publishing and broadcasting hateful content about the Tutsis. ‘The power of the media to create and destroy human values comes with great responsibility’, they argued. ‘Those who control the media are accountable for its consequences.’ (2)

The judgement has been welcomed by many commentators in the West. An editorial in the New York Times said: ‘The three convicted men were not generals, militia commanders or politicians, but media executives…. Though words, not machetes, were their main weapons, they are at least as guilty as those who carried out their murderous instructions.’ The NYT says the verdict has rightly ‘made history’ (3).

‘It might have made history, but it also made me mad’, says John Floyd, who defended Ngeze. He argues that there were some ‘big practical problems’ with the trial, claiming that the prosecution failed to prove a direct link between what was published in Kangura and broadcast on RTLM and the bloody events of 1994. ‘Firstly, I have never read Kangura’, he says. ‘I asked the court to translate it [from Kinyarwanda into English] in 2000, but that never happened. So I had to defend Hassan Ngeze for years, without having read his newspaper.’

Floyd also claims that some of the Kangura articles cited as evidence against Ngeze were published years before the conflict started. ‘Many of the articles they talked about were republications from other journals, specifically the “10 Commandments of Hutu”’, he argues. That was an anti-Tutsi article, which included claims such as ‘Tutsis are blood- and power-thirsty’ and ‘all Tutsis are dishonest in business’. Floyd claims that the article was first published in Belgium in 1988 and republished in Kangura in 1990. ‘And I argued that you simply cannot prove that something published in 1990 had anything to do with what happened four years later in 1994’, he says.

Kangura and RTLM certainly published and broadcast some shocking, provocative material. It is widely reported that RTLM referred to Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’ and stated in 1994 that ‘the graves are not yet quite full. Who is going to do the good work and help us fill them completely?’. It is also claimed that the media outlets gave out individuals’ names and addresses, suggesting that they should be killed. But those who called for the journalists and executives involved to be tried for provoking people to kill have found it hard to prove a link between the written or broadcast word and the actions taken by Hutu militias and others.

As the Columbia Journalism Review noted at the end of last year: ‘[A] direct line between the radio broadcasts, the Kangura articles, and mass murder in Rwanda has been difficult to draw. Stephen Rapp, the American senior prosecutor in the case…has what amounts to circumstantial evidence – broadcast tapes and documents showing that Hutu extremists [on radio and in newspapers] urged people to kill their Tutsi neighbours.’ (4)

Others have questioned just how much of a hold RTLM had over its listeners. In the aftermath of the conflict in the mid-1990s, Canadian ambassador Lucie Edwards said: ‘the question of RTLM propaganda was a difficult one. There were so many genuinely silly things being said on the station, so many obvious lies, that it was hard to take seriously’ (5). Apparently, many people listened to RTLM ‘in a spirit of morbid fascination and because it had the best music selection’ (6).

‘I saw no proof that the articles published in Kangura led people to kill’, says Floyd. ‘What’s more, Kangura was not an especially widely read publication. There’s some argument about this, but Kangura was somewhere between the tenth and twentieth most widely circulated newspaper in Rwanda. When you add the fact that a huge number of Rwandans are illiterate, you have to ask how much of an impact a newspaper could have.’

Aside from these practical problems with proving a link between content and killing, Floyd argues that there is a more fundamental issue at stake – the way in which the trial has blurred the distinction between words and actions, between published material and the effect it may have on individuals or groups.

‘Who is responsible?’ says Floyd. ‘That is the question I asked again and again. If a magazine or newspaper or radio station or TV programme says something inflammatory, and someone decides to act on that, who is responsible – the publication or the person who acted? You are interviewing me right now; if you publish something that I say and as a result something happens, someone gets pissed and someone gets killed, should they be able to come and arrest you? That’s just crazy.’

Floyd says he accepts the need for laws of incitement, which he describes as legislation that could restrict the use of words in a heated moment if they might result in harm to another person’s physical wellbeing. But he claims that the articles in Kangura do not fit into this category.

‘You had to buy my client’s newspaper’, he says. ‘You had to go into a shop and buy it. Then you had to read it. Then you might decide whether or not to act on something you read. Nobody was forced to buy or read Kangura. If – and in my opinion this was not proven – but if some people did act because of what they read in Kangura, then it was still their decision. They are responsible for what they did.’

‘There is a difference between publishing something and carrying out an act’, says Floyd. ‘Writing an article is not the same thing as using an Uzi on someone. But what we have in Arusha is Big Brother run amok, I think. We have debates here in the USA about rap music and rock’n’roll and the effect the lyrics might have on young people; but the Rwanda tribunal has actually indicted a folk singer, Simon Bikindi, for apparently inciting genocide through his lyrics.’

Floyd believes that the people of Rwanda have been treated like ‘automatons’, who apparently read an article or listen to the radio and are ‘instantly stirred up to commit murder’. What is behind this sentiment? ‘Some of it has to do with racism’, he says. ‘Some people do not think that Africans can deal with intellectual or challenging issues.’

The debate about the role that the media allegedly played in stoking the 1994 conflict has certainly been informed by some degraded assumptions about Africans, and about both Hutus and Tutsis. As Barrie Collins, author of Obedience in Rwanda: A Critical Question, argues: ‘A striking feature of most literature covering the events in Rwanda during and after 1994 has been the preference of moral and psychological analysis over political analysis.’ (7) Rather than seeking to rationally understand and explain why the conflict occurred and why it was so brutal, many commentators and academics opted for a simplistic view of Rwandans as unthinking individuals, easily led astray by politicians, military men or, indeed, newspaper articles and radio shows.

Western commentators wrote of Rwanda’s ‘killer culture’ or ‘culture of impunity’. We were told that among Hutus, ‘genocide of Tutsis was taught and assimilated, to the point of becoming instinctive’. A correspondent for The Sunday Times claimed that ‘the Hutu people could not tell the difference between right and wrong’, and ‘found it more natural to tell lies than tell the truth’. Many claimed that Rwanda had a tradition of ‘systematic, centralised and unconditional obedience to authority’, where people automatically did as they were told (8).

This kind of thinking has underpinned much of the debate about the media’s impact on the Rwandan conflict. Whatever you might think of Ngeze, Nahimana and Barayagwiza and their scurrilous media outlets, the indictment of the media for ‘poisoning minds’ can also be seen as an insult to the Rwandan masses, who are assumed to be incapable of judging right from wrong and deciding whether or not to take action.

Floyd says he intends to appeal the verdict. ‘It sets a horrible, horrible precedent. If a despot doesn’t like what someone is publishing, this gives them sanction to close it down. Why not? The International Tribunal has said it’s okay to do so.’ Indeed, as one newspaper points out, the present Rwandan authorities ‘recently detained six journalists and confiscated copies of their weekly newspaper, saying it was “inciting sectarian behaviour”’ (9). ‘This is dangerous stuff’, argues Floyd.

(1) Yes, words can kill, Betsy Pisik, Straits Times, 5 December 2003

(2) Three guilty in Rwanda genocide, Sharon LaFraniere, New York Times, 4 December 2003

(3) Justice in Rwanda, New York Times, 6 December 2003

(4) Journalism and genocide, Dina Temple-Raston, Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 2002

(5) Hate Radio: Rwanda, Radio Netherlands, 8 December 2003

(6) Hate Radio: Rwanda, Radio Netherlands, 8 December 2003

(7) Obedience in Rwanda: A Critical Question, Barrie Collins, Sheffield Hallam University Press, 1998

(8) See Obedience in Rwanda: A Critical Question, Barrie Collins, Sheffield Hallam University Press, 1998

(9) Justice in Rwanda, New York Times, 6 December 2003

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Topics Politics

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