ISSN: 1550-7521

All submissions of the EM system will be redirected to Online Manuscript Submission System. Authors are requested to submit articles directly to Online Manuscript Submission System of respective journal.

Remembering the Rwandan Genocide: Reconsidering the Role of Local and Global Media

Jolyon Mitchell*

The University of Edinburgh,

Corresponding Author:
Dr Jolyon Mitchell
The University of Edinburgh

Visit for more related articles at Global Media Journal


In this article I investigate some of the ways that audiences both inside and outside Rwanda were told about what was happening in 1994 during and after the Genocide. This article is therefore structured around a discussion of different kinds of telling: radio broadcasting, subverting and claiming, chatting and singing, publishing and naming, directing and inciting, reporting and finally displaying. I particularly focus upon the Rwandan radio station RTLM and the extremist paper Kangura. With special reference to these media I demonstrate how religious expressions and themes were drawn upon, subverted or totally ignored. I also, though more briefly, consider the subsequent global coverage of the Rwandan Genocide. Alongside this discussion I describe the attempts in Rwanda both to keep the memory of the killings alive and to highlight the Genocide’s global significance through memorials and a museum.


Not long ago I found myself in the back of a battered old car, juddering down a long bumpy road in Rwanda. It was dusty and hot. The journey was longer than expected. We were in search of one particular building. When we finally arrived at the small village of Ntarama, barefoot children dashed out of their houses, waving and laughing at us. It was a relief to get out of the car. I felt shaken up by the journey; but I would be far more shaken by what we found.

We were confronted by large metal gates, with purple and white ribbons dangling from the railings. Walking into a tree-lined enclosure, we found ourselves facing three buildings. I stooped to go inside the largest of these. The church was smaller than I had expected. Above low wooden benches drab clothes were hanging from the rafters. There was a musty smell of rotting fabric. As my eyes became accustomed to the darker interior, I could make out flowers on an altar at the front. On the wall, next to where we had come in, there were the remains of a poster of John Paul II. It was in tatters. To the left of this picture, there were ordinary metal shelves, reminiscent of those that you might find at a home improvement store. On these shelves, neatly organised in rows were skulls. They stared out silently. One still had a metal rod protruding from its forehead. Beneath them were layers of differently sized bones.

This was one of the many churches in Rwanda where thousands of Tutsis had fled for safety. Here in Ntarama, about 25 miles South of Kigali, over five thousand Tutsi women, men and children sought sanctuary in or next to this place of worship. That was before many of their Hutu neighbours came, aided by gangs of young men, the Interahamwe, mostly from Kigali. They carried tools intended for the farm - machetes, hoes or clubs - along with a few guns, tear gas and grenades. These were thrown into the church. In a few hours almost everyone was killed. Like many of the other ‘killing churches’ it has been ‘tidied up’ and turned into a genocide memorial.

Rwanda, a country famous for its ‘thousand hills’, its gorillas in the mist and its beauty, is now becoming better known for its hundreds or perhaps thousands of genocide memorials. For many Rwanda has become inextricably connected with, even defined by, the 1994 genocide. Our guide in Ntarama hardly smiled once as she showed us around, even 13 years on. Hardly surprising, given she had lost her parents, her brothers and her sisters nearby. It is strange how small details can haunt you, shake you, and inscribe themselves into your memory: an open wooden chest full of children’s note-books, several biros hanging on a line above a pile of shoes, a woven communion cup lying in the dust.Walking around this and other memorials in Rwanda, it is hard to appreciate the sheer scale of the killing. Here was a quiet, shaded and tranquil space bearing solemn witness to one among thousands of unimaginable nightmares. Even though pictures of this church, both carpeted in bodies and after it was ‘tidied up’, are now easily available around the world on the web, there were no obvious signs of global or local media presence. On our way out, I asked the guide what I could do. Her response has stayed with me ever since, resonating with the stated aim of other genocide memorials and museums around the world. Her exhortation to action has informed my own reflection, teaching and research: ‘Make sure you tell people what happened here. So it never happens again. Never Again.’


My aim in this article is to go beyond simply describing what happened in Rwanda, as this has been done in detail elsewhere. 1 My focus is upon the actual communicative process of ‘telling’. I will therefore investigate some of the ways that people both inside and outside Rwanda were told about what happened in 1994. Behind this analysis is a simple question: What can be learnt from the uses of the local media in Rwanda at this time and the subsequent global coverage of the Rwandan Genocide? As we shall see the case of ‘telling people about’ the Rwandan genocide raises a number of important questions, including what is the relation between local and global media in moments of confusion and violence? Given the importance attributed to religion, especially Catholicism in Rwanda’s recent history, it also raises questions about how religious expression and themes are drawn upon, adapted or ignored in the process of telling. In the discussion which follows I analyse different kinds of telling: radio broadcasting, subverting and claiming, chatting and singing, publishing and naming, directing and inciting, reporting and interpreting, judging and assessing, and in the conclusion displaying.

Radio Broadcasting

‘I tell you that the Gospel has already changed in our movement. If someone gives you a slap, give him two in return, two fatal ones’.2

Some of the most chilling broadcasts in the history of radio emerged from Rwanda in the 1990s. Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), One Thousand Hills Free Radio, is frequently blamed for inciting the genocide that claimed over eight hundred thousand lives during a hundred days in 1994.3 In ‘its scale and apparent impact, hate radio in Rwanda seemed to have no parallel since the Nazi propaganda for genocide’.4 At the genocide’s peak there were more than five deaths every minute in Rwanda: the rate of killing was three times as rapid as the murder of the Jews in the Second World War.5 Unlike in Germany where people were mostly transported to die in gas chambers away from their home communities, many Rwandan women, children and men died from masu (nail studded clubs) or machete blows at the hands of neighbours in their own homes, or nearby, in local churches, hospitals, schools and at roadblocks. But what role did radio actually play in these intimate mass murders? Some early accounts claim that much ‘of the responsibility for the genocide in Rwanda can be blamed on the media’.6 Others suggest that the Rwandan genocide would have happened without the broadcasts of RTLM, and that blaming radio is one way of denying responsibility for what was an ethnocide.7 The precise role of radio in the genocide is a contested phenomenon, and while it is neither a new nor unique occurrence, the use of radio to express racial hatred and attempt to inspire ethnic violence remains one of the most disturbing examples of how the wireless can be misused.

This radio station was by no means the only local media expressing hatred towards an ethnic minority, but it soon became one of the most popular. In the midst of both a civil war and genocide, RTLM offered listeners an account of reality, and increasingly blatant exhortations to act violently, that were profoundly at odds with the encouragement to love your enemy. By stereotyping, scape-goating and demonising the Tutsi and some moderate Hutus, as well as portraying RTLM as the defender of the previously victimised Hutu majority, this radio station helped to legitimise the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Many were murdered simply because they carried one wrong word in their identity card: ‘batutsi’. The role of radio in the Rwandan genocide may sometimes have been overstated as a way of deflecting legitimate criticism of previous colonial regimes, post-colonial governments and the non-intervention of powerful nations in the UN. Nevertheless, RTLM’s broadcasters found fertile ground upon which to sow seeds of hatred. Many Rwandans appear at best to have turned a deaf ear on the call to hate their neighbour or to have given active support by assisting or even participating in the killing. RTLM is no more, but hate speech is far from extinct.8 The problem: ‘In what ways can mediated hate speech be resisted?’ remains a pressing one for anyone concerned with global media. Rwanda provides an important case for reflecting on both past and current uses of media for promoting hatred and violence.

In a country where nearly fifty percent of the population could not read nor write, radio was and remains a vital form of public communication.9 Radio appears also to have been widely trusted in Rwanda, with several surveys in the 1980s showing that the vast majority of the population believed that ‘radio tells the truth’.10 Television was expensive, and given the hilly terrain it was almost impossible at that time to receive a clear terrestrial signal. By contrast radio could reach nearly 90% of the country. During the 1980s, the production of radios was subsidised by foreign donors and the MRND government,11 who both sold sets at a reduced price and gave them away to party administrators, as well as more widely during elections. Some of these radios could only receive FM, thereby preventing many listeners from hearing international broadcasters based outside the country who used Short Wave. In 1970 there was about one radio to every 120 people, but by 1990 this had increased to one radio to every 13 people.12 With this greater availability, increasingly radio became a focal point for entertainment, information and discussion in Rwanda.13 With the founding of RTLM in July 1993, Rwanda’s airwaves were filled with a new sound. It soon became Rwanda’s most popular radio station, and in the months preceding the genocide, radios tuned to RTLM were to be found both in homes and ‘in offices, cafes, bars and other public gathering places, even in taxis’.14 In the midst of what some saw as a civil war and others an invasion, RTLM contributed to the development of an increasingly tense public sphere, which provided a forum for extremist speakers to articulate old grievances and new anxieties.

Given this context it is not surprising that subsequent journalistic accounts of the Rwandan genocide pointed to locally produced radio broadcasts as a significant catalyst for the explosion of violence.15 Other media particularly the Hutu extremist newspaper Kangura (‘Wake him up’) were also blamed, but it was the radio broadcasts of RTLM, and to a lesser extent Radio Rwanda, that were deemed to be particularly culpable. One Canadian journalist described how ‘Hutus could be seen listening attentively to every broadcast… They held their cheap radios in one hand and machetes in the other, ready to start killing once the order had been given’.16 Other journalists in the West also highlighted the part played by RTLM in the genocide. The Washington Post, for example, as early as April 7 quoted a RTLM broadcast that warned Tutsi in Rwanda, ‘You cockroaches must know you are made of flesh! We won't let you kill! We will kill you!'’ Associated Press on April 25 quoted a UN spokesman in Kigali claiming that ‘Radio RTLM is calling on militias to step up the killing of civilians.’ Such reports did little to galvanise action against the station in the West. They also reflect a presupposition expressed in many parts of the Western press that the media inevitably have a powerful influence on how people behave. The belief that radio was partly culpable for the Rwandan tragedy has been reinforced in other contexts. For example, a short French film Itsembatsemba: Rwanda One Genocide Later (Alexis Cordesse and Eyal Sivan, 1996) depicts how RTLM began to broadcast with the assistance of the government and then played a central part in ‘the unleashing and the coordination’ of the genocide. Recent feature films about the genocide, such as Hotel Rwanda (2004) also highlight the role of the radio. Nevertheless, the actual role that RTLM played in the Rwandan genocide remains not only a contested phenomenon, but also a point of judicial inquiry.

Subverting and Claiming

The power of radio to break down barriers of space and time has long been recognised.17 It is by no means a unique characteristic, but given the dominance of radio in the Rwandan media environment it takes on greater significance. For example, one local politician, Léon Mugesera, made a now infamous speech over sixteen months prior to the genocide on 22 November 1992, warning his audience to remain vigilant. He referred to the Tutsi as Inyenzi [cockroaches] and asserted that they had ‘threatened the security of the nation’ by sending their children to join the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front). They should be exterminated, and if the justice system fails to punish them then people should ‘take the law into their own hands’ and ‘we ourselves will take care of massacring these gangs of thugs’. His desire to see them sent home, on an ‘express trip’ back to Ethiopia via the river Nyabarongo,18 is particularly haunting given that many Tutsi were killed and then thrown into rivers during the genocide.19 Mugesera encourages his listeners to overlook Matthew 5:39, so that if they are: ‘provoked, they should forget the biblical notion of turning the other cheek and instead should meet violence with greater violence.’ Mugesera ‘corrects’ biblical texts to suit his own purposes, asserting that the lessons of the Bible had been transformed, and in the words cited earlier: “I tell you that the Gospel has already changed in our movement. If someone gives you a slap, give him two in return, two fatal ones”.’ Mugesera’s sentiments were frequently repeated on RTLM. His speech was also tape-recorded and broadcast on national radio, while cassettes of his speech were copied and circulated in Kigali.20 Through recording and radio technologies his words attempting to incite violence were able to travel further and last longer. A decade later the web makes it possible for similar local hate speech to be made available globally.

Mugesera’s corruption of a specific biblical text by Hutu power propagandists was by no means an isolated incident.21 The Ten Commandments published in several extremist newspapers, including Kangura, with extracts regularly repeated on air, exemplifies how a biblical text is mimicked, corrupted and reversed in order to heighten mistrust of the Tutsi people. It is an extremist manifesto: any Hutu who marries or befriends a Tutsi woman, or does business with a Tutsi is to be called a traitor. The attack upon intimate relations between ethnic groups also recurred on RTLM, where Tutsi women were often represented as agents for the RPF. According to these ‘commands’ the education system must be dominated by Hutu and the army ‘should be exclusively’ Hutu. An end of mercy towards the Tutsi and loyalty to the Hutu cause are marks of solidarity against the common enemy of the Tutsi.22 ‘Hutus must cease having any pity for the Tutsi’, according to the eighth command. Any sense of love or empathy for your Tutsi neighbour is to be erased, and replaced by a cold distance because the Tutsi is the enemy within.23

One witness at the so called ‘media trial’, who had worked at the ministry of information, described hearing the ten commandments broadcast and commented upon several times on RTLM.24 He believed that the aim of broadcasting them was to encourage all Hutus in Rwanda to unite around ‘a single fighting goal’ and not to develop relationships with Tutsis. He also thought that these commandments were one of the reasons why some ‘men started killing their Tutsi wives, or children of a mixed marriage killed their own Tutsi parents.25 One of the journalists who worked for Kangura, believed that the promotion of The Ten Commandments actually led to the Hutu ‘perceiving the Tutsi as enemies instead of seeing them as citizens, and the Tutsi also starting seeing the Hutu as a threat’.26 It is not possible to prove that the publication of The Ten Commandments were such a pivotal moment in ethnic relations, but other local observers recognised that their publication sent shock waves among the people.27

RTLM was not the only medium to try to subvert traditional religious belief. For example, one cover of Kangura (no. 3, January, 1992) consists of a deceptively peaceful picture of the holy family. Mary looking down at her son says: ‘Son of God, you were just born at Christmas. Do all that you can to save the Hutu of Burundi from death.’ A childlike and angelic looking Jesus replies: ‘I will tell them to love each other as God loves them.’ In response, Joseph on the right of the picture retorts: ‘No, rather, tell the Hutu of the world to unite.’ The headline above the image leaves little doubt who has won the argument: ‘God is mobilized for the worldwide battle of the Hutu.’ The encouragement to love your neighbour, on the basis of God’s love for humanity, is portrayed as a force not a powerful enough to protect the Hutus in Burundi. Joseph’s statement, ‘tell the Hutu of the world to unite’, takes precedence over the words of both Mary and Jesus. Joseph offers Hutu unification as the only real solution to preventing a rerun of the 1972 extermination of over 100,000 Hutus in Burundi. Reminding the reader of past crimes against the Hutu people, the traditional Catholic iconography is subverted by the captions, showing that the male Joseph has authority over the virgin Mary. Joseph’s forceful assertion resonates with the extreme violence perpetrated against thousands of women during the genocide. The headline unequivocally enlists God to the Hutu cause.

Several radio broadcasters would also later claim God’s support for the defence of the Hutu regime. In contrast to the image discussed above, Marian piety was sometimes used to support the Hutu cause. ‘RTLM announcer Bemeriki maintained that the Virgin Mary, said to appear from time to time at Kibeho church, had declared that “we will have the victory”. In the same vein, the announcer Kantano Habimana said of the Tutsi, “Even God himself has dropped them”.’28 In another broadcast towards the end of the genocide Habimana celebrates: ‘Come let us sing: “Come, let us rejoice: the Inkotanyi have been exterminated! Come dear friends, let us rejoice, the Good Lord is just.” The Good Lord is really just, these evildoers, these terrorists, these people with suicidal tendencies will end up being exterminated.’29 Here name calling and demonising the enemy is fused into a mock liturgical chant. The manipulation of theistic language and religious symbols for violent ends is by no means unique to the Rwandan genocide, but the broadcasting of an inverted ‘turn the other cheek’, the Hutu ‘ten commandments’ and claims that God has deserted the enemy and justly supported their extermination, illustrates how religious expression was manipulated for violent ends.

Chatting and Singing

Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) began broadcasting on 8 July 1993, nearly a year before the start of the genocide. The first three months of RTLM’s broadcasting (July until October, 1994) was dominated by music. RTLM started by ‘endearing itself to the people’ by using popular music to help win an audience. This music was referred to as ‘hot’, and was predominantly Congolese in origin.30 The music, which also originated from Cameroon and the Caribbean, was complemented by some light-hearted and comparatively innocuous comment. The former director of Radio Rwanda, Jean-Marie Higirio, explained RTLM’s early success in the following terms:

The broadcasts were like a conversation among Rwandans who knew each other well and were relaxing over some banana beer or a bottle of Primus [the local beer] in a bar. It was a conversation without a moderator and without any requirements as to the truth of what was said. The people who were there recounted what they had seen or heard during the day. The exchanges covered everything: rumours circulating on the hills, news from the national radio, conflicts among local political bosses… It was all in fun. Some people left the bar, others came in, the conversations went on or stopped if it got too late, and the next day took it up again after work.31

At first RTLM employed eight educated and experienced journalists who skilfully adapted a Western disc jockey style presentation and talk-show format for a Rwandan context. Globalisation was put to local uses. The broadcasters had links with or were members of extremist parties, but initially their approach was far more subtle than the often quoted and possibly mythical cry: ‘The grave is only half full; who will help us to fill it up?’32 RTLM’s airtime was filled by a mixture of popular music interspersed with coarse jokes, banter, laughter, personal reflections, extended interviews and phone-ins from the audience. It ‘revolutionised radio in Rwanda’.33 Often eschewing French, RTLM employed the slang of the Rwandan street and the language of Rwanda’s two main ethnic groups: Kinyarwanda.34

A relaxed, informal approach pervaded the station’s output, and as such it had no real competition in Rwanda. Given the more formal and somewhat slow style of Radio Rwanda it is not surprising that RTLM rapidly grew in popularity, particularly among the under twenties. It was widely listened to in Kigali, often by workers during office hours. ‘Outside Kigali and other urban centres, the station is reported to have attracted people from urban backgrounds, administrators and teachers, rather than peasants from rural areas’.35 One witness at the media trial described how young people were ‘always’ to ‘be seen on the street with a radio listening to RTLM and that the broadcasts were a common topic of conversation’ both at home and in public.36 Even some fighting members of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) chose to listen to RTLM over their own Radio Muhabura (‘Radio Beacon’), which tended towards being over formal, explicitly propagandistic and simply countering the claims of Rwanda Radio. RTLM’s light-hearted approach was balanced with more serious interviews with academics or politicians. Throughout RTLM’s short broadcasting life many of its broadcasters made skilful use of apparently authoritative sources to endorse their informal commentaries about the problems facing Rwanda.

Another way in which Tutsis were demonized by RTLM was through different forms of subtle stereotyping. In the same way that during the Holocaust the Jews were accused of owning an ‘unjustifiable’ share of the wealth in Germany, so the Tutsi were also inaccurately portrayed on RTLM as ‘the ones having all the money’.37 The kernel of truth here was that socio-economic exclusion had been used by both colonial and post-colonial rulers as a form of control over the majority of the population.38 With the crash of the coffee market in 1987, a resulting famine in 1989, overpopulation and a 40% currency devaluation in 1990, many Rwandans were suffering from serious economic hardship in the years before the genocide. References to economic disparity, in a country where approximately 16% of the people held 43% of the cultivated land in 1991, would have further accentuated feelings of injustice.

Beneath this apparently peaceful surface, lay a growing body of anti-Tutsi rhetoric. Through songs, and later through comments and interviews, it echoed the extremist paper Kangura who suggested that the Tutsi had infiltrated positions of power like ‘snakes’ in order to restore the old pre-1959 feudal regime where the Tutsi would once again control the country.39 RTLM would often play songs that highlighted this supposed danger, such as the popular singer Simon Bikindi’s Bene Sebahinzi (‘The Descendants of Sebahinzi’40). In this song Bikindi affirmed the importance of the 1959 revolution, where the Tutsi leadership was overthrown, as ‘a heritage that should be carefully maintained… and transmitted to posterity’. The reason: ‘the servitude, the whip, the lash, the forced work that exhausted the people, that has disappeared forever’. He exhorts the ‘great majority’, the descendants of Sebahinzi to ‘remember this evil that should be driven as far away as possible, so that it never returns to Rwanda’.41 Bikindi’s songs distorted the history and politics of Rwanda to advance Hutu unity against the Tutsi. For example, another of his popular compositions was Twasezereye, composed in 1987, which meant ‘we said good bye to the feudal regime’. It was regularly played on Radio Rwanda in 1992, as well as on RTLM in 1993. ‘Twasezereye was a public call for Hutu solidarity in opposition to the Arusha [peace] accords’.42 Accounts of RTLM which pay little attention to songs and music as both a persuasive force and expression of ethnic division are omitting a highly significant component in the station’s popular appeal.

Many of Bikindi’s compositions have a subtext, and are not explicitly violent, though for Rwandans the intended meaning is clear. For example, one of his songs that was repeatedly broadcast on RTLM, though banned before the genocide on Radio Rwanda, was his Nanga Ba-Hutu or Je déteste ces Hutu (I Hate the Hutu). He sang: ‘I hate these Hutus, these de-Hutuized Hutus, who have renounced their identity, dear comrades.’ He is referring here to those Hutus who married Tutsis. He then goes on to sing: ‘I hate these Hutus, these Hutus who march blindly, like imbeciles. This species of naive Hutus who join a war without knowing its cause.’ His target here is almost certainly a Hutu colonel and his force who changed sides and joined the RPF. ‘I hate them and I don’t apologize for that. Lucky for us that they are few in number…’43 In short Bikindi is referring to his own hatred for the Hutu who support the Tutsi. The tune of this song was extremely popular. According to one witness the lyrics ‘broadcast ethnic hatred’ and later became a ‘hymn’ for the killings.44 In March 1994, ‘Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi youth in their uniforms with the radio to their ear were omnipresent, singing songs very loudly, songs of Bikindi and others saying “We shall exterminate the enemies of the country”.’45

Publishing and Naming

Kangura, described by one reader as ‘The Bell of Death’,46 lived up to this name with its front page in the November 1991 edition (issue 26). On this cover there is a question in a vertical black box: ‘What weapons shall we use to conquer the Inyenzi [cockroaches] once and for all?’ This is answered by the stark picture of a machete.47 The first President of Rwanda, Grégoire Kayibanda, and one of the leaders of the 1959 Hutu revolution, is in the center page and occupies most of the space. Beneath the picture of the former President is the text: ‘How about re-launching the 1959 Bahutu revolution so that we can conquer the Inyenzi-Ntutsi?’ In 1959 machetes had been used to kill many Tutsis and this cover appears to be calling its readers to a second revolution which will eradicate the enemy once and for all. At the top of the page is a simple headline: ‘Tutsi: Race of God?’ In this issue the Tutsi were actually characterised not as God’s race, but as thieves, hypocrites, liars and killers. This cover was distributed to soldiers in Bugesera, free of charge in February 1992, only a few weeks before the Bugesera massacres.48

Other editorials, articles and cartoons published in Kangura echoed the contempt and hatred for Tutsi found in this notorious edition. The tone is a long way from detached or reflective journalism. One striking example is the article: ‘A Cockroach Cannot Give Birth To A Butterfly’ (Kangura, No. 40, February 1993). This article calls Tutsis Inyenzi, cockroaches, claiming that just as cockroaches cannot change, so too Tutsis will always remain wicked.49 In 1960-3 Inyenzi was the name given to the Tutsi guerrillas, both as a term of abuse and because, like cockroaches, they often moved at night. After 1990 it was used for the RPF fighters who invaded Rwanda, and later RTLM and the interim government would use it to refer to the Tutsi in general. In the run up to the genocide Kangura and RTLM regularly employed the word Inyenzi to describe the Tutsi people, as the Nazis used the term ‘vermin’ to describe Jews. This name substitution or name calling was another common technique employed by RTLM broadcasters. Part of the danger of such language is that naming has a descriptive force that dehumanises perceived opponents, turning them into a subhuman species, who also completely lose their individuality. It may be deemed easier to stamp on a cockroach or to poison vermin than to extinguish a human life. During the actual genocide, RTLM claimed that ‘the cruelty of the Inyenzi [cockroaches] is incurable, the cruelty of the Inyenzi can only be cured by their total extermination’.50 The term Inyenzi had come to mean: a person or animal to be killed.

A Hutu civil servant who worked for the Ministry of Information, and was responsible for monitoring all private press between September and November 1993, described Kangura as ‘the most extremist paper’. He suggested that, in spite of the comparatively low literacy rates, it was due to the strong oral tradition in Rwanda that Kangura became a topic of conversation: those who could read discussed its contents with those who could not read. ‘Because Kangura was extremist in nature, everyone spoke of it, in buses and everywhere. He said, “thus, the news would spread like fire; it was sensational news”.’51 These popular discussions of the paper and the exposure on RTLM ensured that while Kangura had a comparatively small print run of only about 1500 to 3000, both its Kinyarwanda and French editions attracted wide public attention.52

I have gone into some detail about Kangura to highlight that RTLM was by no means operating in a communicative vacuum. It was not the only voice inciting racial hatred. Like Radio Rwanda, the content of RTLM’s news broadcasts were often significantly different depending on whether they were broadcast in French or Kinyarwanda, with reports in the local language being more explicit in their incitement to racial hatred.53 The hate media found in Rwanda in the early 1990s, epitomised by RTLM and Kangura, helped prepare the ground for the explosion of extreme violence. They were part of a wider coalition, whose purpose ‘was to mobilize the Hutu population against the Tutsi ethnic minority.’54 Up to this point I have suggested that RTLM’s popularity was derived partly through its broadcasting style and partly because its broadcasts resonated with popular anti-Tutsi sentiment. The hate speech found on this station was symptomatic of the growing ethnic fear and abhorrence of the ‘other’, which the RPF invasion had exacerbated. Many of these broadcasts and writings caricatured the Tutsi as an outsider, an alien, or a settler who was inherently ambitious and wicked, intent on returning Rwanda to a monarchial Tutsi dominated past. In the months before the start of the genocide on 6 April broadcasters increasingly used language which was intended to fan the flames of fear, anger and resentment against the Tutsi population.

Directing and Inciting

What RTLM did was almost to pour petrol – to spread petrol throughout the country little by little, so that one day it would be able to set fire to the whole country.55

Before 6 April some people described RTLM as ‘Radio Rutswitsi’, which means ‘to burn’,56 implying that this was a station that fanned the flames of hatred. Within a few weeks of the start of the genocide on 6 April other listeners had begun to call it ‘Radio Machete’,57 with one person even describing it as ‘Vampire Radio’, which was ‘calling for blood and massacres’.58 Several accounts, written soon after the genocide, failed to represent the sharp intensification of hate speech being broadcast after 6 April 1994.59 Later descriptions demonstrate that these and other journalistic accounts also failed to distinguish between broadcasting before April 6 and after the start of the genocide.60 It was easier to paint RTLM as a station that had always engaged in such patterns of speech, when there had in fact been an evolution of hate speech. How then did RTLM’s role develop during the genocide itself?

Within half an hour of the shooting down of the Falcon jet carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi (Cyprien Ntaryamira) on 6 April 1994 roadblocks had been set up in Kigali. RTLM was the first to break the news of his death, less than an hour after the ‘plane crash’. This event was not so much the spark as the signal for a highly organised and pre-planned killing campaign to begin. On April 10 RTLM had demanded that Hutus should remain vigilantly at their roadblocks.61 The commands to ‘be vigilant’ and to ‘take action’ were repeated regularly. These were places where thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were stopped, questioned and killed. Several witnesses described seeing militia at road blocks listening to RTLM. A French lawyer and journalist, Philippe Dahinden, described how at roadblocks he frequently came across militia with radios, listening to RTLM. He was particularly struck by how much the militia relied on the radio for directions and information. They were clearly following orders to keep listening to the radio for instructions from the interim government. Radio had become an important tool in the genocide.

One broadcast from a member of the CDR militia stated: ‘Whoever does not have his identity card should be arrested and maybe lose his head there’. (29 May) Other broadcasts encouraged listeners not simply to fight in a battle, but to ravage and to punish. RTLM would congratulate listeners for their ‘heroic’ efforts, affirming the efforts of women alongside men.62 On 23 May, for example, Kantano Habimana promised rewards after the war was finished for those who helped on the roadblocks. ‘Those very active within the government and the army and who really ‘work’ are well known. They will get very nice rewards. Those who do not ‘work’ will receive no reward at all. This is not the time to fall ill’.63 Rewards were often promised, so too were punishments for those who failed to carry out what was euphemistically known as the ‘work’. Several of the monologues or conversations on RTLM included explicit encouragement to fight: ‘take your spears, clubs, guns, swords, stones, everything, sharpen them, hack them, those enemies, those cockroaches, those enemies of democracy, show that you can defend yourselves’.64 Repeated calls to action were based upon the impending threat of the ‘enemy’, which was combined with the claim that everybody was involved in this war against these ‘foreigners’, ‘terrorists’ or ‘wrong-doers’.65

One of the survivors from the Ministry of Information stayed at home after 6 April, monitoring RTLM’s output:

RTLM was constantly asking people to kill other people, to look for those who were in hiding, and to describe the hiding places of those who were described as being accomplices. I also remember RTLM programmes in which it was obvious that the people who were speaking were happy to say that there had been massive killings of Inyenzi, and they made no difference between Inyenzis and Tutsis. And they said that they should continue to search for those people and kill them so that the future generations would have to actually ask what Inyenzis looked like, or, ultimately, what Tutsis looked like.66

The blurring of descriptive terms became far more acute during the genocide. It was clear that inyenzi and inkotanyi had in many cases come to mean Tutsi. These broadcasts also set the imaginative divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ into concrete.

Many broadcasts would go further than simply these generalised incitements to kill, and provide specific details of where particular individuals were to be found. For example, during the ‘first week of the genocide, RTLM described a red van which it claimed was “full of accomplices”, and provided its number-plate’.67 It is believed that it was stopped the same day and all its occupants were killed on the spot. Similar accounts of ambulances, cars and buses being stopped following announcements illustrate how RTLM worked closely with the militias. Names and locations of Tutsis in hiding, especially in Kigali, were also frequently broadcast, with fatal consequences. ‘Urgent! Urgent! Calling the militia members of Muhima! Direct yourselves to the Rugenge area…’.68 This broadcast referred to Dr Gafaranga, a leader of an opposition party the PSD, who was hunted down, arrested and executed later the same day. Early in the genocide RTLM appears to have been used to encourage Tutsis to leave their hiding place, either to show their loyalty by going to the roadblocks or to protect their property by returning home. Those Tutsi’s who followed these instructions were invariably killed.69

The priests who actually took a stand against the killing also became a target for RTLM, who claimed that churches were being used by RPF troops as military bases. For example on RTLM Valerie Bemeriki named several priests as being involved in the armed conflict: we know that in God’s Place, there is a place where the body of Christ is kept, which is known as the tabernacle. So? Could Father Ntagara explain to the Rwandan people the reason why the Eucharist has been replaced by ammunition? And the sacristy? Isn’t it there that good priests – the ones we swamp with praise – keep their sacred vestments when they go to say mass, and also keep their consecrated items? Therefore, since when have these items been intermingled with guns? You, Father Modeste Mungwarareba, I have seen you ever since you were rector of Karubanda Minor Seminary. God looked at you and said: “No. What belongs to me cannot be mixed up all these instruments, which are used for shedding blood!” Can you therefore tell us a little bit about the small secrets in the sacristy? So all of us Hutus must remain vigilant.70 (20 May 1994)

Bemeriki’s broadcast both questions the peacefulness of specific priests and identifies churches as places where arms might be hoarded. In fact, thousands of people around the country fled to them as places of sanctuary. Tragically, ‘many of the largest massacres took place in churches because, rather than waiting to be picked off in their homes, people fled there looking for sanctuary, religious comfort, solidarity with others in danger and the opportunity to defend themselves in numbers.’71 Several other churches and a mosque were named on RTLM and soon afterwards became sites of extensive killing.72 When able to receive its broadcasts the semi-private Hutu youth gangs and many members of the presidential guard used RTLM not only for specific information and directions, but also for inspiration and entertainment. During the first ten days of the genocide, RTLM were broadcasting twenty-four hours a day, despite all these conveying these murderous details, they mostly maintained their informal, relaxed speaking style and mix of African music.

Reporting and Interpreting

Up to this point I have concentrated upon local media work before, during and after the genocide. From early April 1994, and the beginning of the Genocide, the interim government developed a practice of feeding the international media with a regular diet of misinformation. This led to many global news channels initially portraying the killings as emerging out of tribal conflict, which had a long tradition in Rwanda. The interim government appealed for international aid, and most dangerously, blurred the distinction between the genocide and the war against the RPF. Both Radio Rwanda and RTLM were used in its propaganda war of disinformation. Some foreign journalists did not accept the government line uncritically, ‘however, a disturbingly large number of foreign correspondents swallowed the “tribal violence” line either in whole or in part. “Anarchy” and “an orgy of violence” were favourite terms’. In the foreign media ‘references to “ethnic bloodbath” and “ancient tribal hatred” persisted into mid-August’.73 The underlying assumption in many radio, television and newspaper reports was that Rwanda had fallen into an anarchic civil war, where Hutu fought Tutsi in a bloody resurgence of an ancient enmity.74 ‘Everyone was killing everyone else; it was uncontrollable violence’,75 rather than the reality: Rwanda was held in the grips of a government-supported genocide. Some newspapers offered more accurate accounts and by late May UN interviewees were more explicit in their condemnation. The then Secretary-General of the UN, Boutros Ghali, admitted: ‘We are all to be held accountable for this failure, all of us, the great powers, African countries, the NGOs, the international community. It is a genocide… I have failed…It is a scandal’.76 With tragic consequences, many radio, television and newspapers failed to heighten public consciousness about was happening in Rwanda. Unfortunately, for many weeks editors were desperately short of ‘good’ pictures, as camera crews and most photojournalists would only travel with international troops for protection. These UNAMIR forces were primarily looking after foreign nationals, with the Rwandese being left to fend for themselves. The result was that many pictures and reports initially concentrated on Europeans being evacuated. There was nothing equivalent to the gripping television pictures of planes going into towers or missiles hitting their targets to awaken international consciousness. It was not until the genocide was effectively over that many foreign television crews ventured to cover the story.

Another related issue was that there were no international journalists in the rural areas witnessing the massacres first hand. Most reporters relied instead on the accounts of non-governmental organisations, survivors and local media. Many of which were understandably distorted or initially unable to comprehend the vast scale of the killings. This was exacerbated by the fact that the vast majority of senior Western and African journalists were not in Rwanda, but in South Africa, covering Nelson Mandela’s triumph in the historic election and the related threat of extremist right wing violence. Many news organisations relied instead on inexperienced stringers or young journalists with little knowledge this area to cover the Rwanda story. While it received regular coverage, it was limited in terms of depth, accuracy and length. Unfortunately, not until it was too late, was there anything comparable to Michael Buerk’s unforgettable pictures and reports from Korem on the Ethiopian famines in 1983.77 Nor was there anything to compare with Bob Geldof’s charismatic leadership of the telegenic BandAid, which assisted in galvanising public opinion in the West to care about the starving population of Ethiopia. In comparison to the initial treatment of the genocide there was far more international television coverage of the Rwandan refugees struggling to survive in Goma, Zaire, and the ensuing cholera epidemic in July and August. The unfolding tragedy during April, May and June in Rwanda effectively remained a closed book for many international audiences for several weeks, while the reports of RTLM and Radio Rwanda continued to incite violence around the country itself.

Judging and Assessing

RTLM is instrumental in awakening the majority of the people… today’s wars are not fought using bullets only, it is also a war of media, words, newspapers and radio stations’.78

This claim was made by RTLM’s mastermind and sometime director, Ferdinand Nahimana, during an interview on Radio Rwanda at the height of the killing. The popularity of RTLM, the continued use of the radio to express hatred, and the cry heard at that time on the telephone out of Rwanda: ‘Stop that Radio’,79 raises several questions connected to what is the best way to counter hate radio? Is it, as some suggest, electronically to jam racist stations?80 Or does this set a precedent that allows authoritarian governments to clamp down on the expression of free speech? Is it better to wait before embarking on blocking the airwaves until the station becomes an explicit tool of the violence, as RTLM did after 6 April 1994? Or if this is a ‘war of media’ is it most effective to follow in the footsteps of RPF and actually bomb the offending radio station? Alternatively, is it more valuable in the long term to use powerful transmitters to broadcast peaceful messages, as was done in Cambodia by the UN in 1992 to out-broadcast the Khmer Rouge’s radio propaganda? At first sight for those intent on stopping ‘that radio’, these instrumental options appear to offer several possibilities, but simply concentrating on how physically to halt hate radio fails to address some of the more foundational issues highlighted by the part played by the media in the genocide.

It is, of course, impossible to predict what would have happened if RTLM had been sanctioned or jammed as some commentators recommended, if Radio Rwanda had offered alternative perspectives and if there had been greater diversity of local and global broadcast media in Rwanda. The genocide would almost certainly still have gone ahead, but with perhaps a little less efficiency and possibly even less fear-motivated anger. Some still assert that ‘the fundamental reality, which cannot be stated too often is that genocide is not caused by the mass media. At worst they may abet the process, but inflammatory media coverage is essentially a symptom of a process resulting from other causes’.81 The roots of evil and what actually causes the inversion of morality are extremely difficult to untangle.82 While many claim that the ‘massacres would have taken place with or without the RTLM broadcasts’,83 one strand to my argument in this article is that radio may well be more than just a symptom of listeners’ mistrust and prejudice: RTLM did broadcast many words and much music which used fear and hatred to incite violence.

This conclusion is supported by the observation from the seven hundred page Human Rights Watch report on the Rwandan genocide: ‘It is difficult to overstate the importance of the mass media in whipping up popular sentiment. Most rural people in Rwanda could only obtain their news from radio broadcasts, and the incessant propaganda, to exterminate the Tutsi, and the claims that the government was winning the war, made many ordinary people believe that the future belonged solely to Hutu extremism’.84 As suggested earlier it is almost impossible to demonstrate conclusively that the mass media actually galvanised people to violence; in fact, motivations for participation in the genocide clearly varied from individual to individual. ‘Some were moved by virulent hatred, others by real fear, by ambition, by greed, by a desire to escape injury at the hands of those who demanded they participate, or by the wish to avoid fines for non-participation that they could not hope to pay’.85 Part of the skill of RTLM’s broadcasters was to tap and even heighten many of these emotions and motives, thereby exacerbating an already explosive situation. Add to this radio’s dominance in Rwanda as a means of disseminating information it is reasonable to conclude that radio played a significant part in contributing or reinforcing many listeners’ fearful and violent imaginative world as well as directing the killers to their victims.

Some scholars have drawn comparisons between RTLM’s broadcasts in Rwanda in 1993/4 and a radio broadcast in the USA in 1938. War of the Worlds is perhaps the most famous dramatic adaptation in the history of radio. The Mercury Theatre Company’s rendition of H.G.Wells’ story derives its fame from the extreme responses it provoked from many listeners. Out of an estimated audience of 6 million, some 1 million are believed to have been frightened, with many taking panic driven action on hearing the broadcast. For example, in New Jersey ‘in a single block, more than 20 families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces.’ In Birmingham, Alabama, ‘many gathered in churches and prayed’, with some students in a South Eastern college huddling round their radios trembling and weeping in each other’s arms.’86 While there are clearly significant differences between the USA in 1938 and Rwanda in 1994, there are according to Kellow and Steeves several intriguing parallels. First, many in both countries put ‘great faith’ in radio as a reliable and authoritative form of news. Second, at a time of political and economic turmoil radio played an important role in providing ‘information and guidance’. Third, Orson Welles and his company created a believable imaginative soundscape through the skilful use of ‘on-the-spot reporting’, interviews with experts and the reference to real places. RTLM’s broadcasts may have been of a very different style, but they also created a sound environment which was both enjoyable to listen to and believable. Kellow and Steeves’ conclusion is that in both cases, in the USA in the 1930s and Rwanda in the 1990s listeners ‘acted on what they believed to be true and real.’87

One important qualification is rooted in the observation that some 5 million people in the USA were not frightened and did not panic. They resisted believing what they heard for a number of reasons, including, they realised that the timescale of the drama was impossible or they checked with other sources and so discovered that what they were listening to was a play. On the basis of such critical verification they were able to resist being sucked into the extreme responses of others around the country.88 Simply hearing a credible radio programme, and being surrounded by people who are frightened, does not absolve the listener from individual moral responsibility in how they themselves respond; nor does the listener’s moral agency absolve broadcasters from responsibility towards their audiences.

This was also part of the conclusion of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s so called ‘Media Trial’.89 On 3 December 1993 the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) judged two of the founders of RTLM the academic Ferdinand Nahimana and the lawyer Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, as well as the owner and editor of Kangura, Hassan Ngeze, guilty of genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, public incitement to commit genocide and crimes against humanity. The tribunal declared that the former history professor Nahimana acted ‘without a firearm, machete or any physical weapon’, but ‘caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians,’90 through helping to create ‘a climate of harm’.91 All three wielded not machetes but words against many of their neighbours. Nahimana and Ngeze were sentenced to imprisonment for the rest of their lives and Barayagwiza received a thirty five year sentence. Not since the Nuremberg trials in 1946, where Julius Streicher the publisher and editor of the virulently anti-semitic Der Stürmer (The Attacker) was sentenced to death by hanging for crimes against humanity,92 have media practitioners been found guilty of such wrongdoing. The actual trial provides valuable additional evidence for helping to assess accurately the broadcasting practices and audience uses of radio prior to and during the four months of genocidal violence. Reading through more than 300 pages of judgement and sentence, based upon over three years of legal proceedings, it is clear that words of peace were overwhelmed by expressions of hatred.

The December 2003 judgment at Arusha is too late, of course, for many of the victims. Another form of resistance is to understand more clearly how RTLM was able to operate with such freedom. Alexis and Mpambara’s report on The Rwandan Media Experience from the Genocide (2003),93 emphasises how there were no effective external institutions to counter RTLM’s flagrant transgression of its original agreement with the government which stated that it would not ‘broadcast any programs of a nature to incite hatred, violence or any form of division’, and would ‘refrain from telling lies or giving out information that may mislead the public’.94 With powerful supporters and close links in the government RTLM was able to ignore the Minister of Information’s orders and avoid sanctions.95 Legislation will not always protect the airwaves, particularly when powerful vested interests are determined to protect the channels which are expressing their own extremist views.

It is sometimes argued that the spread of global media and the fragmentation of local media is an entirely problematic social and communicative trend. But given what we know what happened in Rwanda, surely it is reasonable to suggest that access to more than the simply government run channels or state-backed local broadcasting stations will be an advantage to citizens in search of a just peace? Consider how the recent demonstrations by Buddhist monks in Myanmar provoked violent repression by the military government against independent media as well as an even stricter clamp-down on global networks trying to tell the story of their repression. Similarly, though in a very different setting, it is hard not to wonder whether in Rwanda, had there been more diversity of media outlets and greater access to international media channels whether the slide towards hatred and ultimately genocide would have at least been exposed more swiftly and questioned more rigorously both in Rwanda and around the globe.


I began this article with a personal prologue: a brief description of one of my own visits to a genocide memorial in Rwanda earlier this year (2007), the church at Ntarama. The form of telling is comparatively understated there, with a guide to show you around, answer questions and even point out what you might miss. There is now additional covering to protect the three small church buildings. The intention is clearly to preserve this as a monument for visitors from all around the world, who leave their marks in the visitors’ book. There is also a long memorial wall with many victims’ names. What is striking here is that there remain extensive blank spaces for the anonymous victims. In the capital, the Kigali Memorial Centre tells the story of the Genocide in far greater detail. It is easy to forget while walking around the displays that the place where the centre is located, the district of Gisozi, is also the resting place of about 250,000 victims of the genocide in Kigali. Outside the centre are eight mass graves, made up of concrete crypts which are filled from floor to ceiling with coffins containing the remains of up to fifty victims. Situated by a memorial garden these are usually silent spaces, apart from the sounds of the city drifting across the valley. These horizontal presences are less obviously expressive than the media inside the centre which are employed to tell part of the Genocide’s story. These varied media include photograph after photograph of victims when they were still alive, recorded interviews of survivors, images of the immediate aftermath of the genocide and neatly ordered skulls and bones. One display shows how local radio, newspapers and magazines were used as tools for propaganda to incite hatred. Another wall displays the limited international press coverage preceding the Genocide from papers such as The Times or The New York Times. Put side by side they reveal the sharp contrast between local media and global media coverage of the Rwandan genocide: a divide which I have highlighted in previous discussions.

There are several elements in the exhibition that highlight Rwanda’s religious history and in particular its connection with the Catholic Church. For instance one photograph depicts several Western priests dressed in white standing surrounded by young Rwandans. Such images are used to illustrate the influence of the Church on education during the later part of the Belgian rule (1916-1962). The commentary alongside several other pictures portrays a church that was a divisive influence, initially favouring Tutsis to be leaders, then supporting the Hutus after 1959. In the sections on the actual genocide there are several photos of the ‘killing churches’, such as one image from Ntarama, Bugesera, showing photos taken soon after the genocide of bodies carpeting the inside of the church I had visited. The descriptions are without adornment: ‘People ran to churches for shelter in large numbers. But churches were not sanctuaries of safety. The genocidaires moved into the pews and altars and massacred thousands at a time. Believers ended their lives piled in the aisles in pools of blood.’96 Next to harrowing photographs of these events, there are contrasting accounts of the role of local religious leaders during the genocide. The ambiguity of the role of the churches and their leaders are highlighted through two contrasting stories. On the one hand Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka priest in charge of St Famille, Kigali, a priest who according to witnesses discarded his priest’s cassock and took to wearing a flak jacket and carrying a pistol. He not only colluded but also actually committed acts of violence against Tutsis. And on the other hand, Father Célestin Hakizimana, who at considerable personal risk helped to turn St Paul’s Pastoral Centre, close to the parish of St Familie, into a haven for around 2000 people. The ambiguous role of religion displayed in the museum was expressed, as we saw earlier, through RTLM by the appropriation of religious language while also encouraging direct attacks on ‘troublesome priests’.

It is hard to remain unmoved by what you see or hear at the centre in Kigali which acts as both a memorial and a museum. Unlike the Jewish Museum in Berlin, reminiscent of an unravelling Star of David and designed by Daniel Libeskind, where visitors walk through into disorientating voids visitors in Kigali walk around a series of displays. Responses vary. Some visitors are silent, while others more vocal, I saw a young woman from Europe burst into tears and crumple to the floor after listening to one story of a survivor, who lost all of their extended family in the genocide. Alongside this exhibition is a children’s memorial, dedicated to ‘the memory of the many thousands of children whose lives were cut short cruelly and intentionally’ in Rwanda. Part of the power of this mediated memorial space is the way it leads visitors beyond the bounds of the local to global. The Rwandan Genocide is not depicted as an isolated phenomenon. Situated above the memorial museum, which documents some of the causes and consequences of genocide, is an exhibition entitled ‘Wasted Lives’, which provides several other examples of twentieth century genocidal violence in Namibia, Armenia, Nazi Germany, Cambodia and the Balkans. By locating the Rwandan Genocide in a wider context it offers visitors a global and historical perspective to reflect on both the similarities and dissimilarities between what happened in Rwanda and what has happened elsewhere. This is a form of ‘global telling’ in a local setting.

In this article I have shown through an examination of RTLM, Radio Rwanda and Kangura how ‘telling’ well is globally significant. A broadcaster may sound innocuous, but easy-going banter and singing may mask more sinister intentions. Publishing biased news, naming enemies, directing violence and inciting hatred are examples of ‘telling’ inadequately. Reporting can tell the truth, revealing hidden violence, but it can also overlook or obscure violence. Visiting and then walking round the comparatively untidy remains of a devastated former church may speak more memorably about a genocide than watching a news report or even traipsing around another well-ordered gallery which points back to a moment of chaos. Displaying can keep memories fresh and heighten the desire to make sure genocide will never happen again, but if too neatly or gratuitously laid out it can transform viewers into little more than voyeurs who feel powerless under the weight of violence.


Copyright © 2023 Global Media Journal, All Rights Reserved