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Communication Science and Rwanda Genocide

Updated on December 14, 2016
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MariaInes is a freelancer and artist who writes about social matters from different perspectives.


The Responsibility of the radio station Radio-Telévision Libre des Milles-Collines (RTLM) in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, brings in perspective the right of expression freedom, considered critical in a democratic system. The reasons behind the use of mass media to encourage the mass killing were not to defend democracy, though, but a manifold and complex political situation, rooted in the colonial and post-colonial events between Hutus and Tutsis. These several causes intertwined to produce the killing of about 800,000 Tutsis and moderated Hutus by radical Hutus in less than two months: between “the second week of April and the third week of May (of 1994) the civilian Hutu population […] was actively conscripted and comprised the bulk of génocidaires” (Jones, 2006).

The nineteenth-century colonialism was organized around race and class. In Rwanda, the Belgians became colonial administrators, after Germany was defeated in the First World War, who decided to follow and entrench the socio-political organization where the Tutsis occupied leadership roles and the Hutus a working force role (Jones, 2004:234). After the Second World War, the anti-colonial sentiments sprang in the African colonies and the Tutsis were agitating in Rwanda, causing that the Belgium administration started favoring the Hutus. The Hutu resentment after Belgian and Tutsi oppression gave way to the massacre of 1959, when Rwanda obtained independence, causing many Tutsi and Tutsi-looking Hutus death and the exile of many others to neighboring countries, especially Uganda (Jones, 2004:236).

The circumstances of the Tutsi and Hutu civilians in Rwanda were difficult in 1994, as poverty and lack of opportunities created an already hostile environment. Most of the population was illiterate and used to work as farmers and cattle herders as indicated by Scherrer (2004). The radio was to them the mass media that brought news, educational programs and contact with the politics of the government as pointed by Des Forges (2004).

At the time of the genocide, the power was in hands of a Hutu elite. The dictator Juvenal Habyarimana and his wife Agatha were the center of political power in Rwanda. This elite was sourcing their income from the generous donations of Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland to the development of the country (Scherrer, 2004). This should be seen as one of the salient causes for the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

The initial prompt was the invasion of the Rwandan Patriotic Force in 1990, a rebel army formed in Uganda by the young Tutsi descendants of the exiles of the 1959 massacre. Chossudovsky (2003) states that the United States of America and the British were supporting the activity of the RPF by training and donating money, with the aim of “installing a US protectorate in Central Africa” (Chossudovsky, 2003:111). The final trigger was the announcement of the Arusha agreement, where the dictator Habyarimana agreed to the transition to democracy with the inclusion of the RPF in the politics of the country (Jones, 2004).

The Radio-Telévision Libre des Milles-Collines (RTLM) was created in 1993, which was financed by supporters of Habyarimana regime. Although Kimane (2004) argues that this radio was not created with the objective to orchestrate the genocide, but to broadcast the different political views of the times, it appears convenient for the dictatorship regime to have a mass media tool for reaching the masses only to promote its ends, excluding the interest of the people or other political parties and yet claim that it was exercising rightfully the media freedom proper of democracies. However, it seems urgent to claim that the mass communication media serves the interest of the political system and its ideology, in the case of Rwanda, the Hutu totalitarianism of dictator Habyarimana. It should not be different for democracy, which means that the term media freedom should be rather understood as democratic mass media, where democracy should be seen not only as the majority rule but rather as the respect of the human rights of the society that is ruled, including the minorities as implied by Jones (2006), Scherrer (2004) and Li (2006).

This essay will deal with the role played by the radio as mass media communication during the time of the killing, appealing to different communication theories and bringing some other perspectives that are relevant to shed light on the set of circumstances that led to the “genocidal frenzy” in Rwanda as it was called by Jones (2006).

Biserero Genocidal Memorial by Adam Jones, The memorial is on a hill at the small settlement of Bisesero which is about 60 km by road from Kibuye, Rwanda. 40,000 people died in the area around Bisesero.
Biserero Genocidal Memorial by Adam Jones, The memorial is on a hill at the small settlement of Bisesero which is about 60 km by road from Kibuye, Rwanda. 40,000 people died in the area around Bisesero. | Source

Rwanda in 1994

As mentioned before the RPF launched in 1990 a military invasion in Rwanda to which the Hutus reacted in different ways. As stated by Jones (2006), one of the reactions to the Tutsi invasion was the promise of Dictator Habyarimana to lead the country towards a multi-party democracy and initiate peace conversations with RPF allowing them to participate in politics. On the other hand, radical Hutus reacted aggressively against this decision of the Habyarimana regime and the Tutsis.

Summarizing from Scherrer (2004) and Caplan (2004), the first Hutu dictator to rule over post-colonial Rwanda was Gregoire Kayibanda who tried to bring the ethnic tension to placate the spirit of the Hutus that felt marginalized by his power. He was overthrown by the Hutu Juvenal Habyarimana, who managed to bring peace to the two ethnical groups and economic growth from 1973 to the late 80’s. The above mentioned RPF attack occurred as the economic conditions initiated in the late 80’s, with the drop of price of coffee and tea, worsened. These events started to pressurize Habyarimana government. Caplan (2004) also indicates that Habyarimana played a double strategy: in one hand depicted all Tutsis as rebel supporters and on the other hand appealed for the international support to solve the conflict.

Under these circumstances, the Hutus were vigilant; the extremists were informing them about the danger imposed by the Tutsis who had been recently assassinating Hutus in Burundi. The extremist Hutus also perceived the opportunity to solve the pressure of the imminent democratic transition and their animosity to share the power with the Tutsis or even moderate Hutus, by annihilating them (Scherrer, 2004; Jones, 2006). The Hutu hate speech against the Tutsis started to be proliferated by an extremist Hutu newspaper called “Kangura” and climaxed with the broadcasting of black propaganda against the Tutsis by the radio station RTLM (Radio-Telévision Libre des Milles Collines).” Kimane (2004) states that RTLM constantly dehumanized the Tutsi, being the accusation of being social deviants the most harmful strategy.

The Dictator Habyarimana was killed when he was traveling from Tanzania to Rwanda in the middle of the peace conversations of Arusha. The “genocidal frenzy” started after this event. Devastation covered the country, spreading the killings to the most remote areas, using primarily machetes that were imported between 1993 and 1994, as indicated by Jones (2006). It seems clear that the Hutus were preparing for “war” soon after the RPF invasion in 1990.

Jones (2006) narrates that the extremists Hutus killed Tutsis, moderate Hutus and anyone looking like a Tutsi, while the RPF advanced to defend their people, kill Hutus and gain the power over Rwanda. Once RPF took over the government in July of 1994.

Nyamata Genocide Memorial Church By Dave Proffer. The Nyamata Genocide Memorial, is based around a former church 30km south of Kigali in Rwanda, which commemorates the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Nyamata Genocide Memorial Church By Dave Proffer. The Nyamata Genocide Memorial, is based around a former church 30km south of Kigali in Rwanda, which commemorates the Rwandan genocide in 1994. | Source

The Role of Radio-Telévision Libre des Milles Collines in the Genocide.

The RTLM journalists were supporters of the different parties at the time of the genocide, the chief editor was a member of the central committee of Habyarimana political party. They were also “acting as a surrogate information network for the dictatorship militia and other organized groups dedicated to killing” (Li, 2004).

As indicated by Chretien (2006), RTLM successfully brought a recent memory to the Hutus and the Tutsis about the times when the Hutus came to power in 1959 and released their frustration against the Tutsis in a violent way. This radio station also profited from having access to a broad population, that was under terrible socio-economic conditions, many of them were illiterate and prone to a partisan approach to life (Chretien, 2006; Chossudovsky, 2003). RTLM continually broadcasted the “we the majority against them, the minority”, they insisted that the attacks by the Tutsis were suicidal as they could be overwhelmed by the Hutu majority, who needed to be alert as the Tutsis were aimed to take the power and enact their hegemony. In other words, the Tutsis were guilty and the violence against them was justified (Chretien, 2006).

Although Kimani (2006) concludes that RTLM was not set up with the objective of organising a genocide, under the claim that, as the peace talks with the RPF and the democratization process advanced, they found themselves in a strategic position to coordinate the Hutus against their perceived enemy, voicing their ideology of Hutu hegemony. However, the import of machetes coincides with the foundation of the radio station, while there was already a state radio station that could have served as the voice for all political views of the time. As found in the differently sourced texts, the massacres were not a new happening between these two ethnic groups, current events in Burundi and inside Rwanda gave a voice of alert to Hutus and Tutsis, that a new event of this nature was coming as it always did when power struggles surged. The innovation was precisely to include the radio as a tool to move the masses in a very fast and controlled way, with daily reinforcements.

Chretien (2006) indicates that Habimana, an RLTM journalist, proclaimed on the 6TH of April the expected victory of the Hutu who slowly exterminate their enemy. This author also indicates that there was a daily reinforcement through radio, giving the sense that they (the Hutus) were strong, in a just struggle against the Tutsi and that the enemy’s punishment was deserved. It is clear that the radio was empowering the Hutus and at the same time were intimidating the common Tutsis that were not partaking with the RPF.

The RTLM decisive action to lead the Rwandan genocide, brings to discussion the Social Responsibility theory, which gives a sense of balance to the practice of journalism in a democracy, where the freedom of expression is limited, for example by communications that “might lead to crime, violence, or civil disorder or give offense to minority groups” as summarized by Baran and Davis (2006) from McQuail (1987). Although the Rwandan government system, perhaps did not meet the conditions to be characterized as a democracy, the mass media was exercising libertarianism in the midst of a multi-party environment which did not even had their first democratic elections.

Ntarama Genocide Memorial Site by Adam Jones. Ntarama Genocide Memorial Centre is one of six genocide museums in Rwanda. 5,000 people were killed here in a Catholic church.
Ntarama Genocide Memorial Site by Adam Jones. Ntarama Genocide Memorial Centre is one of six genocide museums in Rwanda. 5,000 people were killed here in a Catholic church. | Source

Psychosocial and Mass Media Theory Perspectives

In the Rwandan genocide, two ethnical groups were polarized, both expressing not only their desire for power and control over the country but also their fear towards multi-party democracy. It is conducive to explain this phenomenon in terms of social psychology, having in account the circumstances of Rwanda in 1994. The Hutus and the Tutsis had racial stereotypes reinforced since the colony times, where the Hutus were supposedly less sophisticated than the Tutsis, who were alleged powerful and intelligent. Humiliation, resentment, narcissism and entitlement usually created clashes in the post-colonial relationship between the two Rwandan tribes (Jones, 2006). The poor conditions of Rwanda, the lack of employment, the fear of the Tutsi oppression made this minority group a target for discrimination by the process explained by the scapegoat theory. The RPF invasion was communicated in a way, by the mass media in Rwanda, that triggered fear and hatred towards the Tutsis by common Hutus civilians.

An explanation for the success of RTLM moving masses to commit mass murder may be found in Alford (2002), who emphasizes the human as a social being that group under different umbrellas, such as nationalism, ethnical origin, religion or any other ideologies. He also compares the Freudian concepts of Id, ego, and superego to groups, where the id or instinct of individuals relates to the historical baggage that a group carries over the time: “[A] group of people come to share a psychological past that they draw on to make a collective world”. The superego of individuals, on the other hand, does not guide humans to do “good” but to do “as the group does” (Alford, 2002).

Chretien (2006) also points that the psychology used to move the masses by the Hutu elite was found in the book called “Psychologie de la publicité et de la propaganda: Connaissance de probléme, Applications Practices” written by Roger Mucchielli in 1972 where “the mechanisms of mass conditioning and mobilization required to create a mass movement” are described. it describes methods for molding a good conscience based on indignation toward an enemy perceived as a scapegoat”.

On the other hand, De Fleur (1975) presents the psychodynamic model of persuasion that may be related to the kind of agenda setting devised by RTLM and political elites in Rwanda genocide. In summary, this model involves the modification of the psychological functioning of individuals to change their psychodynamic relationship between latent internal processes and overt behavior, which leads to the desired outcome of the persuader.

The frame that the journalists imposed upon the civilians was brought from the historical consequences of the Hutu-Tutsi relationship in the colony. the Hutu suffering and humiliation in colonial times by the Belgium and Tutsis governors are an effective framework to elicit violence, where the Hutus are victims and justified by their past. “social cues”, as defined by De Fleur (1975), such as the massacre of Tutsis by Hutus in 1959 -that symbolized the end of the colonialist hegemony and the beginning of the Hutu hegemony-, the recent Hutu massacre by Tutsis in Burundi and the invasion of the RPF from Uganda to Rwanda, were all part of the references that supported the engagement in the mass movement against the Tutsis. RTLM deviated the attention of the civilians from the conditions that created and maintained poverty, by priming these events in their minds, evoking fear and offering a solution to eliminate the source of that fear. On the same lines, Chossudovsky (2003) presents the scenario of a macro agenda setting where the United States of America and the World Bank donors exerted influence to defend their political economy and establish an American protectorate in Central Africa, using as well the social dynamic of the region as a mechanism to do so.

Several latent internal processes arose by this agenda-setting strategies, such as distress, pride and rage against the Tutsis, and also the deep need to solve their poor conditions of life, which could even be perceived as worsened by the presence of more people coming into Rwanda, led to producing the overt behaviour of killing the Tutsi.

There was a second source of persuasion and inter-media agenda-setting. The population was educated to work by churches, schools, and radio in the context of a dignifying task for a living and also as support to the state as Li (2006) brings to attention from quotes of Pruner (1995), Verwimp (2000) and Taylor (1999). RTLM defined the killing as work while newspapers show machetes next cockroaches to answer to the question, what to do with the problem of the enemy. (Li, 2006; Higiro,2006). Obedience and sense of duty towards the government were also exploited by the Hutu elite.

As mentioned before, the Hutu elite was supported by generous donations from Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland while the RPF army was supported by the United States and the British governments (Scherrer, 2004; Chossudovsky, 2003). Donations, that maintained an extravagant way of life of the dictatorship politicians and a strong rebel army, and that were even increased in the times of the genocide preparation and genocide itself (Scherrer, 2004; Chossudovsky, 2003). This situation plus the “lack of intervention of these countries to stop the genocide” (Scherrer, 2004), might have also served to the validation of the attack to exterminate Tutsis and moderated Hutus. The agenda setting devised by the Hutu elite, and possibly prompted by the political economy of United states and the World bank, was not framed in the defence of the welfare of the impoverished Hutus or even in the idea of defending Rwanda, but on the self-interest of maintaining economic resources, power and a luxurious lifestyle (Scherrer, 2004; Chossudovsky, 2003).

Kigali Memorial Centre By U.S. Department of the Treasury. The Kigali Genocide Memorial, in Kigali, Rwanda hosts a visitors centre for those who wish to understand what happened in the genocide.
Kigali Memorial Centre By U.S. Department of the Treasury. The Kigali Genocide Memorial, in Kigali, Rwanda hosts a visitors centre for those who wish to understand what happened in the genocide. | Source


As all the authors referenced in this essay coincide in that the genocide in Rwanda was an announced tragedy. As they point, it happened in front of the international community and the UN peacekeepers. It was not a new event in the region between Hutus and Tutsis, groups that have been killing each other since the Rwanda independence in 1959. The economic conditions of the region, the corruption of the Hutu elite and its support by some European countries created the right scenario for the extremist Hutus to refuse democracy and device a strategy to avoid it. The complex situation that dictator Habyarimana faced as a supporter of the Hutu elite and the dictatorship ideology and as peace negotiator to bring democracy to his country, created tension among all the involved parts.

The radio station RTLM founded in 1993 and financed by the Hutu elite and supporters served as coordinator of the Rwandan genocide. It promoted and reinforced the act that started with the killing of Tutsis by the party militias and that were followed by the involvement of Hutu civilians. Combining the different perspectives and theories mentioned above, it is conducive to conclude that the strategies followed by RTLM and press media included framing and priming backing the ethnocentric ideology that claimed the supremacy of the Hutus in Rwanda against the Tutsi minority. The agenda setting was constructed using current events such as the RPF invasion in 1990 and the then recent Hutu massacre by Tutsis in Burundi. Although these were not the main problems among the Hutu and Tutsi civilians in Rwanda, their attention was primed towards the menace of the usual enemy, the power struggle between Hutus and Tutsis. What better framing that the history of the colonial times and the post-independence events. It can also be concluded that the tribal differences that existed in Rwanda, were reinforced and reframed by the colonial cultural imperialism.

The history, corruption and the unethical application of psychology and mass communication theories created one of the worse genocides in recent history, “where the civilians were exposed to the horror of the mass killing becoming perpetrators themselves” (Jones,2006). This case of abuse of the freedom of expression in a supposedly democratic process where the Hutu majority felt empowered to manipulate the population towards crime, brings the discussion about the boundaries of the exercise of free media expression. As Jones (2006) points, a healthy democracy is characterized by the defense of human rights of all parts of the population, which responsibility is held by the governments that though elected by the majority, is there to serve to the welfare of the whole society. The regulation of the freedom of expression is important to ensure that this one will not betray the core principles of democracy, statement that embodies the social responsibility theory.

Reference List

Alford, F (2002). Group Psychology is the State of Nature, In: Monroe, KR. Political Psychology London. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Chretien, JP (2006). RTLM: RTLM Propaganda: The Democratic Alibi, In: Thompson, A ed. Media and The Rwanda Genocide edited by Thompson, A. Ottawa, CA: IDRC, ProQuest ebrary. Web. 29 September 2016. PP 54-60.

Chossudovsky, M (2003). The Globalization of Poverty and The New World Order. Quebec, Pincourt. PP 103-121.

Des Forges, A (2006). RTLM: Call to Genocide: Radio in Rwanda, 1994, In: Thompson, A ed. Media and The Rwanda Genocide edited by Thompson, A. Ottawa, CA: IDRC, ProQuest ebrary. Web. 29 September 2016. PP 41-53

De Fleur ML, Ball-Rokeach S (1975), Theories of Mass Communication. New York. David McKay Company, INC.

Jones, A (2006). Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. London, Routledge.

Higiro, VJM (2006). Rwandan Private Print Media in the Eve of the Genocide, In: Thompson, A ed. Media and The Rwanda Genocide edited by Thompson, A. Ottawa, CA: IDRC, ProQuest ebrary. Web. 29 September 2016. PP 73-88

Li, D (2006). Echoes of Violence: Considerations on Radio and Genocide in Rwanda, In: Thompson, A ed. Media and The Rwanda Genocide edited by Thompson, A. Ottawa, CA: IDRC, ProQuest ebrary. Web. 29 September 2016. PP 90-109

Scherrer CP (2002.) Genocide and Crisis in Central Africa. Conflict Roots, Mass Violence and Regional War. London, Praeger Publishers.

© 2016 MariaInes


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