By Mary Kimani,
KIGALI – All over Kigali there is the new sound of music and programming coming through the airwaves. It is the sound of Radio 10, the first in a group of six media companies that have been authorized by the government to start radio broadcasts.
It is a new exciting phenomenon for a country that virtually closed down all activities by independent stations in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. But Rwandan media is undergoing a rebirth and rejuvenation, and everyone is busy tuning in.
The reason for all the excitement is that in January this year the government of Rwanda, for the first time since the genocide, liberalized its airwaves. The liberalization came only a few weeks after the sentencing of three defendants in the media trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) for using media to incite genocide. So is there any lesson to be learnt from the past as Rwandan media moves towards the future?
Rwandan folklore speaks of a bird of ill omen ‘Inkotsa’ whose cries herald the coming of evil deeds. For many, the voice of Noel Hitimana on RTLM on 3rd April was exactly that — a bird of omen heralding the genocide.
“We know it. We know that in the next few days, in the days around Easter, there will be something happening in Kigali, something small. There will be some grenade attacks, maybe some assassinations. It will happen on the 6th [April], maybe jump the 7th and continue on the eighth… our armed forces should be vigilant,” Hitimana warned.
‘The small thing’ was to happen on 7th April. It turned out to be the shooting down of the president’s plane which plunged Rwanda into a 100 day genocide.
At the trial of the three founding members of Rwandan hate media at the ICTR in Arusha, a prosecution witness called Radio Television Libre Mille Collines (RTLM) ‘Radio Inkotsa,’ the radio whose cries incited the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Jean Bosco Barayagwiza and Ferdinand Nahimana were founding members and officials of Radio Television Libre Des Mille Colline (RTLM) while Hassan Ngeze was the owner and editor of Kangura newspaper. The three defendants in the trial were accused of using their respective media to incite ethnic hatred and violence against the Tutsi. Ngeze and Barayagwiza also faced additional charges of actively and personally participating in acts of genocide. Each was found guilty of genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, and public and direct incitement to commit genocide among other charges.
On 3 December 2003, Ferdinand Nahimana and Hassan Ngeze appeared in court for sentencing. Barayagwiza boycotted the session as he had done since the beginning of the trial in October 2002.
While reading out the judgment, the presiding judge in the trial, Navanethem Pillay, underlined how important the radio station had been in inciting the massacres.
“The interahamwe and other militia acted on the information that was broadcast by RTLM. RTLM actively encouraged them to kill, relentlessly sending the message that Tutsi were the enemy and had to be eliminated once and for all.”
Citing and reading out various excerpts of Kangura, presiding judge Navanethem Pillay demonstrated how the paper stereotyped the Tutsi and incited the population against them, preparing for their eventual extermination.
Pillay says that Ngeze’s writings “portray Tutsis as inherently wicked and ambitious in language clearly intended to fan the flames of resentment and anger directed against the Tutsi population. The cover of Kangura number 26 answered the question “What weapons shall we use to conquer the Inyenzi once and for all” with the response — the depiction of a machete. The message conveyed by the cover was the message of violence — that the machete should be used to conquer the Inyenzi once and for all. By “Inyenzi” Kangura meant, and was understood to mean all Rwandans of Tutsi ethnicity who in this issue of Kangura were stereotyped as having the inherent characteristics of liars, thieves and killers. Hassan Ngeze owned and controlled Kangura, he was responsible for its contents,” she said.
Emmanuel Ncogoza-bahizi was one of those who used to read Ngeze’s Kangura newspaper. A militia man, he is currently detained at the Gisenyi prison, awaiting trial for the crimes he perpetrated. He remembers many of the ideas Ngeze put in the paper. At the time, Ncogoza thought of the articles as patriotic, he thinks differently now.
“Those things he wrote, they are what pushed people to go out and kill others.”
Tom Ndahiro a former journalist currently working with the Rwandan Human Rights commission, says that in preaching the ideology of discrimination and hatred, media organizations such as Kangura and RTLM were in effect, dousing the country with paraffin and by 1994 all that was needed was someone to light the match.
“The ordinary villagers in Rwanda were not born nor did they grow up thinking like killers. They were made to do these things by other people. They were taught how to kill,” he argues.
“The people who taught them to think in murderous ways used tools such as media. People such as those in this trial, they knew exactly what they were doing,” Ndahiro adds.
It is an argument that the court embraced in its sentencing. The judges in the trial noted that the role of the media in countries in conflict is a sensitive one and the impact cannot be underestimated.
“This case raises important principles concerning the role of the media … The powers of the media to create and destroy fundamental human values comes with great responsibility, those who control such media are accountable for its consequences,” she noted.
In sentencing Nahimana, the court accepted that the historian never touched a machete or firearm. Yet, they underlined, he caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians through the words used by his radio and through articles which he sometimes wrote out for the journalists to read on air. While accepting that Nahimana may have been motivated by what he saw as his patriotic duty to support the government in its fight against the Rwanda Patriotic Army (a largely Tutsi army that had invaded the country), the judges noted that he had chosen to use illegitimate means to achieve that goal.
“We call on Nahimana to rise for sentencing. Having considered all the relevant factors in respect of each of the counts for which you have been convicted we sentence you to imprisonment for the remainder of your life. You may resume your seat,” Pillay told Nahimana.
Barayagwiza was sentenced in absentia. He has boycotted the trial since it began, claiming he could not expect a fair trial. He was sentenced to life by the chamber but he will serve an effective sentence of 27 years in compliance to an appeal court ruling through which he was entitled for a reduction of sentence.
Ngeze faced the most scathing criticism by the court. In particular judges noted that derogatory and humiliating articles on Tutsi women published by Kangura made rape an inevitable consequence during the genocide. Moreover, they noted, even after his arrest, Ngeze continued to spread rumor and untruth.
“Ngeze uses, distorts and fabricates information freely, marshalling it for other ends. In his testimony as well as other conduct during the proceedings, Ngeze demonstrated a thorough disregard for the truth and for the solemnity of his declaration to testify truthfully,” presiding judge Navanethem Pillay noted.
The judges ruled that although many witnesses testified that Ngeze saved some Tutsi people this could not mitigate his crimes.
“You poisoned the mind of your readers and through words and deeds caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Having considered all the relevant factors, the chamber sentences you, in respect of all the counts for which you have been convicted, to imprisonment for the remainder of your life,” Pillay announced.
The sentences were seen by international observers as a statement that the international community was no longer willing to allow the incitement to genocide or ethnic cleansing to continue in the guise of freedom of speech but not all Rwandans see it that way.
One of those who are upset is Tom Ndahiro. “The sentences they gave them do not correspond to what they did. There is no sentence that can ever match what those men did. All that a life sentence means is that the crime has been acknowledged. Maybe the term will give them an opportunity to reflect on what they did,” he says.
Jean Pierre Habimana was one of the avid followers of Barayagwiza and Ngeze. He is considered a category I criminal in Rwanda, and is liable to a death sentence if found guilty.
“I speak as a prisoner in the national system who has confessed his crimes. Those of us here who committed similar crimes are not easily let off; the sentence is usually a life term or a death sentence. Paradoxically, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has no death sentence and yet those who are there are the ones who started it all,” he says mournfully.
But not everyone thinks the sentence is inadequate. Thomas Kamilindi was a journalist working with Radio Rwanda during the genocide. He refused to broadcast communiqués by the government prevailing over the genocide and even fled, becoming himself a target for RTLM. To him the sentence sets an important precedent.
“The trial that has just been concluded has provided an important lesson to journalists where media and its uses are concerned. Moreover the lesson is not only to Rwandans it is for everyone else in the world. This is the first trial in the world in which people are arrested, brought to trial and convicted as media people because of that they did through their media outlets. We talk about it amongst ourselves as Rwandan journalists, and you can hear people say “well you can all see what has happened, if you are ever caught doing this kind of thing, you will get the same sentence,” Kamilindi points out.
Telesphore Nyilimanzi was in charge of Radio Rwanda broadcasts during the genocide. He too admits that media played a negative role in the events.
“One cannot deny that media in general had a role to play in the atrocities that took place in Rwanda because there were some broadcasts in RTLM that could be seen as encouraging ethnic discrimination and hatred. I think that is the role RTLM played in some of its broadcasts. I do not know if Kangura was published during the war but when it was publishing there may have been some articles that can be said to have encouraged discrimination,” he admitted.
When asked about the responsibilities of those in charge, particularly Nahimana who once in charge of Rwandan Television and radio, Telesphor was wary of apportioning blame and even appeared to backtrack.
“I cannot say anything about the charges against them, he was in charge of RTLM but I do not know what broadcasts the station made during the war, he can better explain the role he played in RTLM. All I can say is that he was in charge. What he did or any broadcasts made during the war, I really do not know anything about that,” he hedged.
Telephor died shortly after the interview. He was still awaiting trial for similar charges of incitement to genocide.
So is there any lesson to be learnt from the media trial? Before he was convinced to join the killing campaign, Banganirabusa Musa Azali was a business man in Gisenyi.
“I think the sentence has a lesson not just for journalists but also for the prisoners. I think it tells us all what will happen if you do bad things and that becomes a deterrent. Maybe this means that what happened in Rwanda will not happen again, at least that is how I see it,” he says.
With the new media, the hope Rwandans have is that the country will move ahead to a greater unity and cohesion, rather than back to the old notions of division and hatred that led to so much bloodshed.
As for how soon that can be accomplished, well, stay tuned to find out.