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Saturday, 29 June, 2002, 23:58 GMT 00:58 UK
Rwanda's 'hate media' on trial
Skulls of massacred Rwandans
Up to a million people died in the genocide

It is an old adage that the first casualty of war is truth, and for more than a century every major conflict has prompted inquests about the manipulation of the media in the service of the state.


The first time since the end of World War II that propaganda in the service of the state, or an extremist cause, has been on trial at an international forum

But rarely do the purveyors of propaganda get called to account in a criminal court for their words.

That is what is happening at a war crimes trial in Tanzania and the world's media - which may well be affected by the outcome - has shamefully neglected the case.

Known as the "media trial", it is taking place in the northern town of Arusha which is home to the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda.

In the space of 100 days between April and July 1994, up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in the most sustained bout of bloodletting the world has seen since 1945.

Propaganda on trial

The three defendants in this forgotten trial are not statesmen or warlords but media executives.

Tutsi refugees
The radio is accused of having led militias to Tutsi hiding places

They are jointly charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.

A fourth man, a celebrated singer, has been indicted on identical counts.

It is the first time that the Genocide Convention has been used to test the truth of the adage: the pen is mightier than the sword - or machete in this case.

And the first time since the end of World War II that propaganda in the service of the state, or an extremist cause, has been on trial at an international forum.

'Attractive trappings'

Two of the defendants, Professor Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, were instrumental in setting up a private radio station, Radio Tele Libre Mille Collines (RTLM).

The third, Hassan Ngeze, a Muslim, edited a newspaper called Kangura, or Awakening, which has been likened to the infamous Nazi hate-sheet, Der Sturmer, in the way that it demonised and dehumanised its targets.


The messages being pumped out were wrapped in a number of attractive trappings

Alison DesForges,
Human Rights Watch
The prosecution alleges that RTLM was not only a vehicle for virulent anti-Tutsi propaganda but that it directed the Hutu militia to places where Tutsis were hiding and thus played an active role in their extermination.

An expert witness, Alison DesForges, of Human Rights Watch, has told the court that RTLM had a unique impact for a radio station.

"In a country with a high degree of illiteracy and where TV is confined to a minority of homes in the capital, radio was enormously influential.

"But unlike the state-controlled Radio Rwanda, RTLM had an informal, relaxed sound and played great music so the messages being pumped out were wrapped in a number of attractive trappings," she said.

Precedent

Journalistic accounts of the genocide report that virtually every roadblock manned by the interahamwe militia had its transistor radio - and that commands to search out and kill Tutsis, often described as "cockroaches", were being broadcast and acted upon throughout the 100 days.

But the defence has yet to begin its case and the arguments which will be deployed are likely to resonate far beyond the confines of a tiny, benighted country in central Africa.

The key issue is where and how the line should be drawn between the kind of bellicose propaganda with which governments psych-up their populations in a time of conflict and encouragement to commit genocide, which is a clear breach of international law.

Professor Nahimana's English QC, Diana Ellis, puts it like this: "Rwanda had been invaded in 1990 by a Tutsi-dominated force, the RPF. And the government of a country which is at war uses a different kind of language to mobilise a defence against enemies attacking from outside."

It has been argued that RTLM's role was no more strident than that played by some of the Belgrade stations during Nato's bombing of Kosovo - and the language no more intemperate than that directed against Muslims by some US radio and TV commentators post-11 September.

The first permanent international criminal court is formally established on 1 July, and the verdict at Arusha is likely to set a precedent for the media every bit as powerful as those handed down against the Nazis leaders at Nuremberg.

Jon Silverman reports on the media trial for the BBC World Service's Assignment and Radio 4's The World Tonight on Monday 1 July


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19 Jun 02 | Africa
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