Media and mobilization: the influence of RTLM

6 May 2014 | ResolutionPossible

“The Tutsi are ferocious beasts, the most vicious hyenas, more cunning than the rhinothe Tutsi inyenzi [cockroaches] are bloodthirsty murderers. They dissect their victims, extracting vital organs, the heart, liver and stomach.”

“You have missed some of your enemies. You must go back there and finish them off. The graves are not yet full” (excerpts from Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines).

Radio messages like this were broadcast daily over Rwandan airwaves from 1993-1994, mainly on Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM). Twenty years later, when we reflect on the events that took place in Rwanda, it is necessary to consider the power and influence of RTLM which shaped public opinion and transformed a country. We also need to consider the power of the media in our own lives, and its ability to change the way we think about our fellow citizens.

Radio as a communication tool

Communication technologies which allow for the spread of messages and ideas are powerful tools, from the printing press to television and the world wide web. In Africa in the 1990s, this mass communication technology came in the form of radio. Radio was seen as a developmental tool, one which could work to preserve the oral traditions of many African communities. Rwanda, along with most of Africa, embraced this technology. Print newspapers were widely available in Rwanda, but the low literacy rate meant that radio could reach a far wider audience.

Along with radio’s power as a developmental tool, it was also effective in ethnic mobilisation. In Rwanda, for radio to be an effective ethnic mobilising agent it needed to relate to the Hutus and Tutsis through cultural symbols. From its outset, RTLM began to win over listeners, Hutu and Tutsi alike, by using symbolic themes in its broadcasts. Cultural symbols, such as traditional music, were used alongside talk programs covering issues important to all Rwandans. By relating to Rwandans culturally, RTLM’s message was perceived as legitimate and truthful.

The rise of RTLM

President Habyarimana, along with fifty other shareholders, started RTLM in August of 1993. The fact that it was a privately owned station allowed it greater broadcasting freedom. Whilst most believe that greater press freedom is inherently positive, it could be seen to have become problematic in Rwanda as RTLM began showing its allegiance to the extremist Hutu party – Hutu Power. Their political and propaganda capabilities were increased in 1994 when RTLM took over stations owned by the government-owned broadcasting collective, Radio Rwanda. This gave RTLM complete monopoly over Rwandan airwaves which, coupled with the legitimacy it enjoyed, enabled RTLM to become a significant mobilising factor for the violence that began in April 1994.

The influence of the media

The front cover of the Daily Express in June 2013 with the main headline stating 'WE MUST STOP THE MIGRANT INVASION'

The front cover of the Daily Express in June 2013.

The case of media influence in Rwanda is not unique.  Only last week did a frighteningly similar case come to light in South Sudan.  The power of media in this case has been called a “game-changer” in the South Sudan conflict, likely adding to ethnically targeted violence and killings.

While certainly not as extreme as RTLM or the recent developments in South Sudan, we can see Western media employ the same methods of demonisation and exclusion. One topic that readily comes to mind is the issue of immigration. Whether you reside in the US or the UK, this is always a hot topic for certain media outlets, and one which can foster negative opinions of others. Thankfully, however, there is no a monopoly on media in these countries and varying opinions offer perspectives which counter potentially harmful messages. But, imagine, for a moment, if that was not case. Hate propaganda could easily target minority groups to devastating effect. Thus, RTLM offers us a salient reminder that the ability to shape public opinion comes with important ethical, moral and social responsibilities.

ResPoss asks:

Whether you listen to the radio, watch the 6 o’clock news, read the morning paper, or get push notifications on your smartphone with breaking news from BBC or CNN; how much do you think about where the information comes from?

If you read or hear about something that moves you, do you take it at face value? Or do you explore it further?

Contributing writer/research: Eric Bell 

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