International Court Convicts Rwandan Media Figures of Genocide, December 3, 2003

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Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 696 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1390L

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On December 3, 2003, a United Nations tribunal in Tanzania convicted Ferdinand Nahimana, Hassan Ngeze, and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza of genocide and crimes against humanity for their roles in encouraging the massive slaughter of Rwandan ethnic Tutsis by rival Hutus during the country's civil war in the 1990s. The three men--a newspaper editor and two radio executives--used their media outlets to encourage violence against Tutsis during the 100-day-long massacre instituted by the majority Hutus. "Hassan Ngeze owned a newspaper, Kangura, that, with deadly effect, urged its Hutu readers to murder Tutsis," wrote a New York Times reporter. "Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza ran a radio station, RTLM, that actually directed gangs of killers to specific Tutsi targets." It was the first example of media figures being placed on trial for crimes against humanity since the Nazi Nuremberg trials in 1946--and it raised many questions about freedom of speech and the failure of the international community to intervene in a clear case of genocide.

The trigger for the killing of an estimated 500,000 Tutsis--and a number of politically moderate Hutus--was the assassination of Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu. The presidential jet carrying Habyarimana and Burundi president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down by a surface-to-air missile in early April 1994. Within days both governmental and paramilitary groups began a campaign to rid Rwanda of both Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus, rounding up groups and slaughtering them with hand grenades, machine guns, and machetes. "The butchering of ... roughly 70 percent of Rwanda's entire Tutsi population, during the spring of 1994," the New York Times contributor wrote, "is one of the clearest cases of genocide since World War II. Regrettably, the international community did little to stop it."

The tribunal found that Nahimana, Ngeze, and Barayagwiza used their media outlets to encourage the massacre. Sometimes they took a more direct role. "The court also found that Mr. Barayagwiza distributed a truckload of weapons used by Hutus to kill Tutsis and that, in one town, Mr. Ngeze ordered Hutu militias to murder Tutsis," said Sharon Lafraniere in the New York Times. "As gangs took to the streets with nail-studded clubs and sharpened sticks, the radio broadcasts grew increasingly chilling, court records show. One RTLM announcer advised: 'Look at a person's height and his physical appearance. Just look at his small nose and then break it.'" RTLM announcers also served to alert the death squads of the locations of hundreds of Tutsi refugees, often misrepresenting them as insurgents. "Another broadcaster discovered hundreds of famished Tutsis hiding in the dormitory of an Islamic center in Kigali," the Rwandan capital, Lafraniere continued. "A survivor testified that the station announced that armed Tutsi fighters were in the mosque. By the next morning, the Hutu militia had herded the Tutsi into nearby houses and lobbed grenades inside, the witness said."

The conviction and sentencing of the three men raised questions about the culpability of the media in crimes of genocide in particular and hate crimes in general. While critics agreed that speech that incites mass murder and crimes against humanity is and ought to be a violation of international law, many of them also expressed their fears that the tribunal's decision could be seized upon by conservative governments as justification for suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press. National governments such as Great Britain and the United States hope that monitoring capacities originally designed for the Cold War can help prevent the sort of hate crimes perpetrated by the Rwandan media in the future. "The international policy community is beginning to develop technologies for preventive detection of hate speech--effectively an alerts system for detecting such instances--and the recent judgments will give them a clear precedent to use as a deterrent when hate speech is detected," said Guardian contributor Damian Tambini. The UK's foreign service and different U.S. agencies have begun to develop programs to monitor hate speech in the worldwide media. "The job of determining what constitutes legitimate political debate and what constitutes incitement is clearly ultimately for courts," concluded Tambini. "What monitoring can do is provide reliable evidence and engage diplomatic pressure: a role surely strengthened after the decisions last week."

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2359070058