Genocide, Radio Rwanda and Indian TV channels

Genocide Watch founder Gregory Stanton on January 12 briefed the US Congress on the likelihood of genocide in India. The US Holocaust Museum in November issued a similar alert. A look back at Rwanda

Genocide, Radio Rwanda and Indian TV channels

Abhijit Shanker

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is known as one of the biggest targeted ethnic killings in human history. It has been in the news in the past week reminding us of the massacre, and it’s time we revisited history, so as not to repeat it. Over the past century, we have had several instances when the local media has cowed down to the wishes of the ruling party. For any strongman, regular and targeted communication with their constituents is key to holding on to power.

Talking of channels, two instances of the use of good old radio comes to mind: by the Nazi Party in Germany starting 1930s, and by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in the early 1990s. The way the parties used radio for propaganda differ in their basic tenet – while Adolf Hitler’s propaganda machine used it to convince the Germans that the tools it was employing for genocide were fair, RPF used the radio to sway public opinion against the Tutsis, one of the two ethnic groups in Rwanda.

Eventually, the programmes would goad the Hutus to turn against their Tutsi neighbours and kill them in scores. Much has been written about the Nazi party, the ensuing massacre, and the concentration camps. Let’s focus our attention on what happened in the biggest genocide in recent history, and why it may not be the last.

People killed their lifelong friends, who had grown up together in the same village and sometimes in the same extended house, killed the other to protect the ‘nation’, which had been touted as belonging to the Hutus. The ‘other’ needed to be exterminated, and the ordinary citizens were repeatedly asked to take up arms, which were supplied in abundance, and get rid of those who were ‘polluting’ the nation.

Genocide, Radio Rwanda and Indian TV channels

As has been seen in history, it’s easy for the autocrats, the dictators, the strongmen, to blame their failures on the ‘other’. Whether it’s the lack of employment opportunities for the young, or inflation rising through the roof, when the people are reminded their ‘nation’ was in danger, they typically come together to get rid of those blamed for all their ills.

This is usually led by the leader at the top of the pyramid, who enjoys influence and support among the majority. People, who are already frustrated by their misgivings, are easily blinded by what they are told, and are not able to sieve truth from the grainy falsehood that are propagated. This tact is straight from the dictator’s playbook, initiated by Benito Mussolini, who ultimately was dragged on the streets, shot, and hung for all to see.

Reverting to the Rwandan genocide, the main channel used was the humble radio, though the way the audience was tricked was blasphemous. Radio Rwanda was established in 1962 and was owned by the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA), which had acceptance among the Rwandan citizens through the decades.

In 1990, the RPF started its own station, Radio Muhabura. The hoax it employed was that the latter was broadcast at the same wavelength as the more acceptable Radio Rwanda, albeit at different times. This was designed to trick the average Rwandan, who assumed the programming was coming from the government, and accepted it as the gospel truth. The programmes served a few purposes, primary among them was to pronounce the Tutsis foreign to Rwanda – they said the Tutsis belonged somewhere else, mainly in Burundi, a neighbouring country. Radio Muhabura also hammered the idea that the Tutsis were taking away the opportunities that rightfully belonged to the Hutus. Lastly, the programmes frequently asserted that the Tutsis were a danger to the society and could turn against the Hutus anytime.

Together, these assertions served to sway the common beliefs away from the Tutsis and were instrumental in fatally evoking a genocide. Further, it was disseminated that the Hutus faced an imminent danger from the Tutsis, and several smaller killings took place during 1990-94, before the final blow in 1994, which is estimated to have killed 800,000 Tutsis in less than 100 days, from April to June 1994.

The Hutus, as was evidenced in trials, were acting in self-defense. Several journalists who incited people to kill each other were jailed. The fourth pillar of any democracy, as they are called, must exercise restraint and refrain from bias, whichever government they choose to serve. Their primary responsibility must be towards their audience, the citizens of the country they work in.

The communication channels may have changed today, with the new age instant messaging groups, and social media platforms, which can spur action in much less time, if they are influenced by the strongman of the day, the ordinary citizens must be careful about never being led to commit crimes against their brethren, their fellow citizens. They must not expect anyone else to do the thinking on their behalf. It’s a long and lonely road, which the citizens must tread themselves, away from the hatemongers, calling for a genocide – on a radio, or otherwise.

(The author is a former Chief of Communications with the UN in New York, where he worked for more than a decade. Views are personal)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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