Road to Rwanda and the Call for Moderation
By Chidi Omeje
It serves no purpose to continue the pretense that we do not understand the important role that the media plays in shaping conflicts or how, with proper support or mobilization, it can help create the conditions for sustainable peace and security.
The genocide in Rwanda and the wars in the Balkans that marked the break-up of Yugoslavia have presented us a classical picture of the powers and potency of the media in aggravating crisis to uncontrollable proportions. In both cases, the media played pernicious role – directly inciting genocide in Rwandan while acting as a vehicle for virulent nationalism in former Yugoslavia.
Both cases demonstrated the growing recognition of the importance of local media coverage in shaping and developing the conflict on the ground; a frightening example of how a society can obliterate, how fear can be exploited by the power of a media in the hands of those unscrupulous enough to wield it as a weapon.
The Rwandan experience, particularly, will continue to be cited as a veritable template of what becomes of a society wherein media indiscretion rules the air waves. Let’s take a peep into that sordid experience: a little over twenty-seven years ago, the whole world stood hands akimbo (yes, hands akimbo!) and watched as one of the most horrific genocides in history played out in Rwanda, an otherwise promising East African country. Within a span of hundred days, the macabre dance of horror which started on April 7, 1994, had claimed the lives of approximately 800,000 people, mostly of Tutsi ethnic stock and a little of moderate Hutus. Of course, one cannot in actual sense reflect deeply on the history of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda without considering the dangerous role the media played in both inciting, deepening and prolonging the carnage.
Here’s what happened. In 1993, the ruling National Revolutionary Movement for Development was engaged in negotiations to end the civil war that was brewing in that country. In the midst of all that, the Hutu power circle, in their ‘wisdom’ established a private radio station, Radio Television des Milles Collines (RTLM). RTLM became immensely popular as a young, hip alternative to the official voice of the government. It played popular music, encouraged the public to phone in and participate in radio broadcasts. Amongst its listeners, RTLM attracted the unemployed youths and Interhamwe militia, the Hutu foot-soldiers who would later carryout the unconscionable pogrom against fellow Rwandans. It turned out of course, that the ‘wisdom’ in establishing the radio station was to transmit unbridled hate propaganda against the Tutsi ethnic group.
From October 1993 to late 1994, RTLM was used by Hutu leaders to advance an extremist Hutu messages and anti-Tutsi disinformation, spreading fear of a Tutsi genocide against Hutu, identifying specific Tutsi targets or areas where they could be found, and encouraging the progress of the genocide. In the weeks prior to the April 1994 genocide, the station ramped up its anti-Tutsi, pro-Hutu propaganda. Broadcasters used increasingly dehumanizing language to speak about the Tutsi minority. This mobilized ordinary Hutu citizens against the Tutsi and gave specific directions for carrying out the killings. As war correspondent and diplomat, Samantha Powers described it, killers often carried a machete in one hand and a transistor radio in the other. Three months later, over 800, 000 Rwandans were hacked to death by fellow Rwandans while the international community failed to intervene or stop the genocide.
Now, more than a quarter of a century on, the world is still astounded by the incredible role that the media, especially broadcast media, played in the debilitating genocide. A lot of debates are still ongoing as to how much influence radio and television broadcasts directly had in inciting violence of such monumental and unmitigated proportion.
Did the broadcasts by RTLM simply amplify the fear and genocidal ideology that was already circulating in Rwanda preparatory to genocide? Yes. Did the Rwandan people suspect the real intention of the founders of that odious station? No. Were the broadcasters of those hate propaganda couched in radio programming not ‘exercising their right of freedom of expression’? You bet they were! And most probably, they would have argued spiritedly that they reserved the right to that freedom! Did the broadcasters and the owners of the station have a country when the fire they stoked turned into conflagration? Not at all. Was the entire world shocked at the level of carnage that ensued? O yes! Did they do anything to stop the genocide? Hell no!
And so, as Nigerians, we must right about now begin to ask ourselves some reflective questions as the country groans under the weight of intense hate speech, toxic messages and hate propaganda which are unfortunately being churned out in the broadcast industry today and conveniently couched as ‘right to freedom of expression’.
The first series of introspective questions every patriotic Nigerian needs to ask are: how do we pull back our dear country from the dangerous precipice that she is sitting at the moment? How do we douse the palpable ethnoreligious tension and the intense sociopolitical tautness in the polity? Are we going to keep pretending that we do not know or see the correlation between toxic narratives orchestrated in and by the media, and the killings and reprisal killings happening in some parts of the country? Are we prepared to take the express road to Rwanda or are we going to show a little circumspection in the kind of languages we deploy in the media, especially the broadcast media?
For me, it is about time we stood back to assess our situation. I’m persuaded that now is no time to burrow deeper into the biases of our ethnic, religious or regional fault lines. Whether we believe it or not, our dear country is in bad shape. It is either we save it or face the approaching apocalypse.
As Tope Fasua, an Economist and public affairs commentator wrote, “There will soon come a time when we will have nowhere to turn and no excuses to hide behind. By then, we will find ourselves in the open; naked and shivering…it is left for us to tell ourselves the truth”. Of course, there is no faster and surer means of pushing the country into such abyss than through reckless and mindless use of the media, particularly the broadcast media.
The good thing, however, is that we have a regulator for the broadcast industry whose responsibility it is to rein in on irresponsible, unethical and unprofessional broadcast activities anywhere in the country. But the question is, will we allow them to do their job and carry out their statutory mandate of insisting that professional, ethical and conflict sensitive broadcasting rule the airwaves? Will we not, as usual, heckle, intimidate and blackmail them into timidity and submission with our default “Freedom of expression” mantra, even when the country is almost imploding?
If only we understand the enormous power and overriding influence of broadcast media in shaping the opinion and determining the behavior of people, we would all insist that regulators like NBC must do their work, especially at a perilous time as now. Sanctioning erring media houses for unprofessional conduct is in line with the NBC act and should not be a matter for public debate as the provisions of the law guiding the operations of the NBC are clear and unambiguous.
NBC should be able to wield the big stick anytime it notices serious or dangerous infraction to the rules and regulations of our broadcast code; and this is trusting the Commission not to overreach itself or become unnecessarily overzealous. Very important.
*Chidi Omeje wrote from Abuja
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