In Africa, Exploiting the Past
By Joel Simon
Reprinted from Columbia Journalism Review, January/February 2006.
Posted: January 17, 2006
During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, media outlets linked to the Hutu-backed government helped lay the groundwork for the slaughter of Tutsis by routinely vilifying them. One radio station, Radio Television Libre de Mille Collines (RTLM), went so far as to identify targets for the Hutu militias that carried out most of the killing. In December 2003, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted three Rwandan media executives — two from RTLM and one from a newspaper called Kangura — for their role in the genocide.
The convictions represented a small measure of justice for the victims of the Rwandan genocide, but they were not necessarily good news for journalists in Africa. Many governments there have exploited the perception that the violence in Rwanda was fueled by the media to impose legal restrictions on the press in their own countries. The practice of casting the suppression of critical media as a legitimate effort to fight hate speech and incitement is now distressingly common, so much so that it has become a major impediment to independent journalism in many countries in Africa. In fact, the misuse of hate-speech laws by repressive African governments may well be a greater threat right now than hate speech itself.
Since 2002, the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented nearly fifty such cases in at least a half-dozen countries. In Chad, for instance, four journalists were recently sentenced to jail terms ranging from three months to three years on incitement charges (they were later released). All four journalists had criticized the government and one had reported on an alleged massacre. In Rwanda, public incitement to “divisionism” is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, heavy fines, or both. The current Tutsi-led regime, which consolidated power in the 2003 election, has increasingly used allegations of ethnic “divisionism” to silence critics, including those in the press.
All of this is not to deny that hate media and incitement are significant concerns in much of Africa. Rather, the problem is that the concern about hate speech expressed by many African governments is disingenuous. After all, instances in which legal means have been used to suppress actual hate speech or incitement are rare. CPJ’s Africa program, which monitors press conditions throughout the continent, has documented only a handful of examples in the last several years in which speech that could legitimately be classified as incitement was suppressed.
Moreover, where hate speech and incitement thrive, they are generally linked to governments, political parties, and civilian militias. In the case of RTLM, the ostensibly private station was tied to the government of President Juvenal Habyarimana through a web of investors. Several RTLM financial backers and board members were close to the Habyarimana regime and the interim government that presided over the genocide, which killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
In convicting the three defendants in the so-called media trial, the Rwanda tribunal seems to have conflated incitement to genocide with incitement to hatred, a practice that while odious is not a crime under international law. And the tribunal went further, noting that the media paved the way for the genocide in Rwanda by “whipping the Hutu population into a killing frenzy.” While RTLM certainly broadcast hate-filled messages, the genocidal violence was not a spontaneous reaction to its programming. The media were only one component in a coordinated government campaign that included arming civilians, mobilizing the population, and organizing militias.
No one doubts that the defendants in the media trial were guilty of terrible crimes. But Diane F. Orentlicher, a professor of international law at American University, is concerned that the judgment’s expansive legal reasoning could threaten press freedom. Orentlicher, along with the noted First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, plans to ask the appeals chamber of the Rwanda tribunal to refine the legal reasoning regarding incitement that led to the convictions.
Indeed, without clearly articulated international standards on incitement, many African governments will continue to exploit the perceived correlation between hate speech and genocide to stifle legitimate criticism and suppress independent reporting.
Joel Simon is the deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.