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.



Typed on the 2nd of July at Bourbon Coffee Shop (with the internet down).

So, today was a day that I had been anticipating for, well for a few years now. I had in mind two goals, two places I wanted to go. First was the Kigali Memorial Center, the city’s memorial of the 1994 genocide and an exhibit about other genocides in history. It was really interesting and really informative, which is what I expected. The exhibits were split into Rwanda before, during, and after the genocide and addressed issues like ethnic divisions and justice after the war. Here are some pictures from the memorial.

But the thing that loomed ahead was the memorial I had wanted to see since I first read about the incident a couple of years ago. The church in Nyamata.  In early April of 1994, when the genocide first began after the President’s plane was shot down, thousands of Tutsis fled to the church in Nyamata.  They were safe for a couple of days before the Interahamwe militia broke down the gates and lobbed grenades at the church before using guns and machetes to kill those inside.  I’ve heard figures of up to 10,000 victims.  It’s something difficult to imagine, and seeing the memorial was something that really struck a chord.

So after a half hour matatu-ride and a short trip on a bicycle, I got to the church. It was a simply brick building with a serene lawn, with everything draped in purple and white flags. I walked in and immediately was taken aback by the pews. Each pew in the church was covered in piles of clothes – the clothes of the victims. The clothes were also scattered all over the floor throughout the church.

From here I went into the vault immediately under the church. Here there was a three-tier shelf that laid it all out for me. The very bottom was a casket draped in white cloth. Above that was a shelf with row after row of skulls. In the center were some bracelets and identification cards (each of which said “Tutsi” on it). The top tier, just about at eye level, was a pile of bones – femurs to scapulas to ribs, laid bare. I knew the memorial was displayed like this, but I was still a little on the defensive, and when I saw that someone had scribbled a name onto one of the skulls I got weepy. After reflecting for a bit I got out of the church.

After walking out of the church I faced the most daunting task – the mass grave behind the church. First, there was a grave for an Italian humanitarian worker beside the church – she had warned about the impending genocide and called on people to intervene before she was killed. Behind the church were two large slabs of stone marking the grave. Each one had a staircase that led underground to the tombs. Inside were stacks of caskets (each with the bodies of far more than one victim), shelves lined with hundreds of skulls and bones, and dozens of purple and white flags. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, but you at least know what you’ll see.

Needless to say, it’s a powerful statement, seeing these reminders of the genocide.  It is such a different idea of remembrance that we have at home, and it’s such a different way of addressing an issue like this. It definitely brings out emotion, and if you’re like me it just makes you think that the event this church represents isn’t a solitary event. This happened all over the country in 1994, and things like it have happened around the globe in the passed century. Seeing the memorial was something I had to do, and I think it’s something that will stick with me for a long, long time.