Genocide in Rwanda
December 6, 2003
According to a Reuters report in our Thursday edition, three Rwandan journalists have received long jail sentences for fanning the flames of a 1994 genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people, two for life and the third for 35 years. At the landmark trial that lasted for three years evidence was led to show that the media had played a major role in inciting extremists from the Hutu majority to carry out the 100 day slaughter of ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus.
Referring to one of the defendants, Ferdinand Nahimana, the founding director of Radio Television Libres des Mille Collines (RTLM), who was sentenced to life in prison, the maximum penalty the tribunal could hand down, the Presiding Judge Navanethem Pillay said "Nahimana chose a path of genocide and betrayed the trust placed in him as an intellectual and a leader." He continued: "He caused the deaths of thousands of civilians without a firearm." Speaking of the station he said: "RTLM spread petrol throughout the country little by little, so that one day it would be able to set fire to the whole country."
RTLM, established in 1993, became known as hate radio and many of its journalists were accused of preaching ethnic hatred. Dancille Mukandoli, president of AVEGA, a group of women widowed by the genocide said: "I cannot measure their punishment but the important thing is that justice is being seen to be done and the accused must accept there was a genocide in Rwanda and that they are the ones who are responsible."
This is perhaps the ultimate and most horrendous example of the damage that can be caused by grossly irresponsible media. Free speech and free media are indispensable elements of an open, democratic society but there have to be rules of the game which inhibit extreme abuse. In most societies, libel actions can be filed for defamation. In Guyana, because of delays in hearing this tends to be less of a threat than it should be to irresponsible personal criticism, though where the line should be drawn is by no means easy and courts here and elsewhere have to be extremely careful not to stifle fair criticism of public figures or to deter free speech by an excessive award of damages.
What about the incitement of ethnic hatred? There are laws here that make this a criminal offence, but they have remained a dead letter. Indeed, commentators have routinely got away with this as well as contempt of court and other abuses. Judges can and should be criticised on their judgments, but a case has to be made soberly and with due regard to protocol and without imputation of corrupt motive (unless indeed that can be proved).
The bottom line is that free societies have to evolve their own broadly acceptable rules of what should and should not be printed and broadcast. This is by no means easy nor can it be precise. It is partly a question of training, habit and good sense, the gradual development of a mature publishing and journalistic culture that understands the pitfalls, the danger of irresponsible journalism and the damage that can be caused.
A free press (the term here includes all media) is vital and it should be confident and unafraid to do its job properly. But there must be some standards, it must try to verify facts, it must not offer opinion or rumour as fact. The tone of reporting should be restrained, not sensational or confrontational. The utter horror that occurred in Rwanda shows what can happen where there are no rules or standards, where anything goes, where indeed the media themselves become players in the game of ethnic division and spreading hatred.