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The Rwandan genocide, 21 years later: Media must reflect on role of hate speech

Patrick Manyika holds up a photo of himself and his family. Manyika was born in a Ugandan refugee camp after his Tutsi family fled Rwanda.
Patrick Manyika holds up a photo of himself and his family. Manyika was born in a Ugandan refugee camp after his Tutsi family fled Rwanda.

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

This statement was originally published on mfwa.org on 7 April 2015.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) joins the world in remembering the victims of the Rwandan genocide, one of the darkest times in recent history, and the 100 days of deliberate and systematic killings of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.

Today, the MFWA reflects on the deadly role played by the media in inciting the genocide and other violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Specifically, the MFWA urges journalists in West Africa to recall the Rwandan genocide and recognize the dangers of hate speech and avoid disseminating incendiary words to the public.

So egregious was the Rwandan media's behaviour in 1994 that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) convicted three media executives of genocide, incitement to genocide, and crimes against humanity, among other crimes. These perpetrators held positions at the infamous hate media outlet Radio Télévision des Mille Coulines (RTLM) that broadcasted the names and locations of people targeted for killing and Kangura newspaper, known for targeting Tutsis through racist stereotypes. On account of the actions of high-ranking media figures such as these three, the dehumanization of Tutsis—a recognized stage of genocide—became a daily occurrence.

“The media has an obligation to act responsibly and should accordingly facilitate peace and the promotion of human rights,” said Anjali Manivannan, the MFWA Programme Officer for Free Expression Rights Monitoring and Campaigns. “Civil society should also contribute to reducing hate speech by capacity-building and educating the media on the need for eliminating dangerous, inflammatory speech.”

As several countries in West Africa enter election periods this year—times which are typically rife with hate speech and violence—professional reporting may be critical to maintaining peace and stability. Conversely, unprofessional and irresponsible reporting may facilitate political and ethnic violence, among other abuses.

No one wants to see a repeat of the grave human rights violations and genocide in Rwandain 1994. On the 21st anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide, the MFWA calls on the West African media to refrain from spreading hate, especially during election periods, due to its potential to incite mass violence. Media programming must responsibly guard against the use of the media as a platform for incendiary, hateful diatribes by politicians or even citizens. In order to curb the probability of election violence, we plan to implement projects to capacity-build the media in countries with upcoming elections and advocate against rising media unprofessionalism in the region. The MFWA ultimately hopes to end the West African media's utilization of words as weapons and increase the usefulness of words as tools of peace-building and understanding.

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