The Rwandan Genocide: Role of the Media, Local Politics and the International Community

The Rwanda genocide was perpetrated by the majority ethnic Hutus against the minority Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Initial social and political developments in the country, characterized by increasing tribal tension, culminated in the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6th 1994. A mass murder campaign targeting the minority Tutsis was conducted following this event, in which over 700,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered, with hundreds of thousands more raped, maimed and displaced. The speed, brutality and extent of the massacre has made it to remain one of the most recognized acts of genocide in the history of the world, apart from the Nazi led genocide in Germany and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1970s (Melvern 6). Since the occurrence of the genocide, several lessons have been learnt from the events. This is not only based on the historical background to the actual genocide, but also in the causes, actual events and the consequences of the genocide. One major lesson learnt from the case of Rwanda is who really is to blame for the Rwanda genocide. It is difficult to pinpoint one individual to blame as the cause of the genocide. It has been noted that several institutions, individuals and organizations played a role in organizing,, perpetrating and carrying out the genocide. Also, certain acts of commission by various socio – political actors bore responsibility to the genocide. This paper attempts to answer this question. In doing this, a general historical overview of the genocide is given. This is followed by an extensive examination of the causes of the Rwanda genocide and the different roles they played in the genocide. Finally, a brief examination of the different roles that each individuals and institutions take the blame is given.

The Rwanda Genocide: a Historical Note

Although the actual genocide was instigated by the assassination of president Habyarimana, it is argued that the build up to the genocide and civil war started a little while ago. Rwanda had remained a volatile and unstable country plagued by civil wars, assassinations and heightened political temperatures throughout the 1970s and 80s. This had been a result of continued power struggle between the minority Tutsis , who had been overthrown in a revolution in the 1960s and the majority Hutus. Earlier, a series of rebel incursions were launched into the country by exiled Tutsis; each of these incursions triggered a series of reprisals against the minority Tutsi population which was still living in the country (Prunier 100). By the end of the 1980s, president Habyarimana had lost much of his support base as a result of isolationist politics of the time. The leadership had neglected the entire population of Rwanda in the face of an economic crisis fueled by falling prices of coffee and tea: the major exports of the country. There was growing tension and dissent to end the monopoly of power by the MNDC the ruling party and its elite. In 1990, the Tutsi led RPF launched an attack against the Hutu led Rwanda government. It is after this attack that the leading power elite in the Hutu government saw the need to unite as a force and craft the unity of the nation based entirely on propaganda aimed at destroying the Tutsi minority whom they labeled as traitors. A series of propaganda campaigns, increasing tension and political events followed suit to precipitate the genocide. In brief, the historical background to the genocide occurred in a sequence of events as follows: the RPF invasion of Rwanda in 1990, the attempted coup and a resulting refugee crisis in Burundi and other neighboring countries in 1993, a steady build up to the crisis in early 1994 and the assassination and ensuing massacre on 6 April, 1994.

The Role of the Media in the Rwanda Genocide

In examining the role of the media in the Rwanda genocide, it is important to highlight the difference between the local media and the international media, since both played different roles prior to and in the course of the events of the genocide. There were also differences in the way the two were used, whereas the international media is generally blamed for misrepresentation of the extent of the genocide by mistaking it for a civil war, the local media bears the full blame: it was used for inciting the majority Hutus against the Tutsis prior to and during the genocide.

Thompson notes that there was an ongoing media war in the country prior to the genocide. The local media was used as a tool to inciting and fueling the violence. The two media outlets: RTLM and a bimonthly publication: Kangura were actually part of he genocide. Prior events indicate that the activities of the two media outlets prior to the genocide were not counteracted by the UNAMIR because the Unamir, apart from lacking the requisite skills and expertise to run a local radio station, failed in its repeated attempts to counteract the effect of the propaganda being broadcast by the leading local media(Thompson 124 – 130).

Since Rwanda was a single – party state, the ruling party had compete monopoly over the mass media. Iit is also imperative to note that the majority of the local population was illiterate and, therefore, depended on the radio as the single source of information and communication in their day to day lives. Radio Rwanda was first used as a tool of incitement back in March 1992. a communique, supposedly sent by a human rights group based in Nairobi, was broadcast to the whole nation saying that the Tutsi were planning an attack on the Hutus in Bugesera. It called on the Hutus to prepare to defend themeselves in the face of the supposed attack. The ensuing propaganda culminated in the killing of hundreds of Tutsis by the local Interahamwe militia and Hutu civilians (Scherrer 56) .

Plans to use the mass media as a way of mobilizing the civilian population into solidarity against the Tutsi minority and the RPF were drawn by colonel Bagosora, an influential member of the Habyrimana government prior to and during the genocide. Colonel Bagosora that took control of national affairs after the assassination of the president and remained largely instrumental in coordinating the massacre (Scherrer 60). Unlike Radio Rwanda, the RTLM took a populist approach in its operations. It manner of broadcast was jovial and engaging, thus appealing to the local population as the voice of the people. After the assassination of the president, RTLM engaged in a propaganda campaign that largely contributed to the genocide. First, its reporting of the assassination was highly sensational and calculated towards arousing ethnic tension and repulsion. Second, its continued reporting emphasized perceived differences between the Hutu and Tutsi; inciting the local population against the supposed foreign origin of the Tutsi and their plan of imposing forced labor in Rwanda. Third, just like Radio Rwanda had been used in 1994, RTLM was used to pinpoint areas of attack prior to and during the massacre (Thompson 167 – 180).

It can be seen that the local media played a key role in the genocide. Prior to the attacks, Radio Rwanda was used as a tool of propaganda by the ruling MDC party during the early 1990s. Later, after the crafting of the Arusha Accords, the Hutu power elite, in the face of growing opposition from the RPF, resorted to the use of RTLM and Kangura as tools of propaganda. The local mass media was used to mobilize Hutu solidarity in the face of a false impending Tutsi onslaught, spew ethnic vitriol against the Tutsi population, convince the Hutu population that an attack on the Tutsis was a civil duty and lastly, the local media was used during the actual violence period to direct and coordinate the attacks (Melvern, Conspiracy to Murder, 96).

The Role of the International Community in the Rwanda Genocide

France, America, the United Kingdom and the United Nations are blamed for playing a role in the Rwanda genocide by failing to act decisively to prevent the genocide from talking place in the first place and failing to stop the actual massacre after the killing had commenced. The international community, led by the global elites failed to take action against the genocide by being institutional bystanders int face of genocide, which in itself, was a gross violation of international law. 7070-. By being complacent in taking political and military measures to end the genocide, the international community abandoned the situation with mass withdrawal of troops who were serving under UNAMIR. Also the two military operations by the French army: Operation Turquoise and Amaryllis only served to exacerbate the problem since the genocide that was already underway (Wallis 100 – 109).

Also, the International community, under the United Nations, had failed to provide the required number of military personnel and other resources required for the UNAMIR mission. The insufficiency of the operation in the face of widespread killings led to a withdrawal of the Belgian soldiers serving under the mission. This left the entire population totally vulnerable to the massacre by the militia forces (Hazel 32).

The Role of the Akazu in the Rwanda Genocide

The Akazu was a ruling elite composing of senior officials in the Habyarimana government. Their activities in planning, financing and orchestrating the genocide was motivated by the desire to crush Hutu rebellion and destroy the entire Tutsi population, thus maintaining absolute power in the leadership of Rwanda. It is difficult to determine the origins of this power clique,but it is generally agreed that it was born after the 1993 coup attempt and the increasing involvement of the RPF in the political affairs of the country (Prunier 107 – 112).

The Akazu was mainly composed of relatives to the President, senior government officials, top military leadership and top bankers from the ruling Hutu elite. According to Melvern, A People Betrayed, 69), notable members of the group included two bothers in-laws of the president: Francois Karera and Protais Ziginyarinyazo; members of top military officials including Justin Gacinya, Jean – Pierre Karangwa, Ellie Sagatwa and Pascal Simbikangwa. These members played the key role of bankrolling the whole campaign of murdering the Tutsi minority. It is observed that the group held real power and obstructed any attempt at implementing democracy in Rwanda80-87. Also, it is the Akazu that not only initiated the killer militia groups: Interahamwe and Impunza, they also managed the recruitment, arming and all logistical activities during the genocide. It observed that it was the Akazu who ran the main bodies that carried out the genocide: the FAR militaries, the Presidential Guard, the Interahamwe (associated with MRND) and the Impunza (associated with CDR Party).

Thus, this group took control of the state apparatus and completely manipulated it to serve the agenda of power retention by use of the genocide policy. It sought to implement the policy through mass incitement to murder or also through mass coercion to murder. By creating an atmosphere of totalitarianism in the leadership, this clique of individuals used the state apparatus to transform the entire Hutu population into mass murderers (Cohen 24 – 25).


By Mark M

January 3, 2009