Hate Radio

2/3 of my thesis is about how radio can be used to mitigate violence in the LRA conflict. The programs aren’t perfect, and may even facilitate other kinds of violence through increasing militarization, but the radio programs aim to use the airwaves to encourage rebels to lay down their arms and to warn civilians of impending attack.

When I explain my project to people, one of the most common reactions is to compare it to the role of radio in the Rwandan genocide. There, the killing of 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu occurred with RTLM Radio playing in the background. The radio station went down in infamy as inciting the genocide with divisive messages of hate, calling on Rwandans to purge their country of Tutsi, linking Tutsi civilians to the rebel RPF fighters, and publicly naming people who would then be targeted.

Ever since Rwanda, radio and its potential for inciting mass violence has captured the popular imagination. There are fears of radio programs turning peaceful neighbors into killers by engaging in fear-mongering and naming people and places to be attacked. There was even recent news that radio stations in Bentiu, South Sudan had been used to instigate violence.

I watched Sometimes in April last week in one of my classes, a film about the Rwandan genocide that is told through the story of one family. I was surprised at how much the film hits you over the head with the role of RTLM radio in the genocide. One of the main characters, Honoré, works at the radio station, and the film moves between the genocide, during which Honoré issues hate on the radio and also tries to smuggle his brother’s Tutsi wife and children out of Kigali, and after the violence, where Honoré is being held on charges of incitement. In almost every second of every scene in 1994, the radio is playing.

But how much of a role did RTLM actually play?

Scott Straus, author of The Order of Genocide, an in-depth study of why Rwandan men took part in the genocide, has a 2007 article that questions the assumption that radio helped drive the genocide [pdf]. In it, he soundly debunks the theoretical cases for radio’s role in inciting genocide (a. theory that media can influence the public so directly go against established communications research; b. theory that radio caused listeners to go out and kill denies killers agency; c. theories of radio’s role rarely situate it among other theories of violence) and he also takes on empirical studies that say that RTLM was a main driver of violence.

Straus compares a few different data sources and pokes holes in the idea that RTLM turned people into violent killers by broadcasting hateful messages. First, he notes that RTLM’s broadcast range was limited to Kigali and western Rwanda (that’s without considering the country’s hilly topography). He then compares this to the fact that killings occurred in all government-held territories, even those where RTLM did not have an audience. Second, he looks at the actual broadcasts temporally. Admitting that a small fraction of attacks were called for explicitly by RTLM, he finds that, broadly speaking, the increase in killings did not coincide with the increase in inflammatory or extremist broadcasts during the genocide. Lastly, he includes quantitative evidence from broadcast content and qualitative evidence from interviews with perpetrators that show that most of the broadcast content did not actually mobilize killers.

Overall, he finds that the radio had a “second-order” effect in bolstering those who advocated for violence, but that most perpetrators were not convinced by the radio to go out and kill; rather they were recruited in person or were reacting out of fear. He summarizes his findings as such:

The positive evidence of radio media effects is that the radio instigated a limited number of acts of violence, catalyzed some key actors, coordinated elites, and bolstered local messages of violence. Based on these findings, it is plausible to hypothesize that radio had conditional and marginal effects. Radio did not cause the genocide or have direct, massive effects. Rather, radio emboldened hard-liners and reinforced face-to-face mobilization, which helped those who advocated violence assert dominance and carry out the genocide.

I don’t know much about the recent story about radio and violence in South Sudan, but I do know that the country has never effectively addressed ethnic divisions that were so acute in the recent decades. Radio may play a role in inciting violence, but it can only do so when the foundations have already been laid for such violence.

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One thought on “Hate Radio

  1. I completely agree with the closing line “Radio may play a role in inciting violence, but it can only do so when the foundations have already been laid for such violence.” In Rwanda’s case those foundations were laid by a 4 year brutal war that preceded the genocide and of course one cannot ignore a couple hundred years of power struggle between the two groups.

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