African Arguments

Radio Propaganda and the Broadcasting of Hatred: Historical Development and Definitions is a new book by Keith Somerville, a regular writer for African Arguments.

It was late evening on Wednesday 6 April 1994 in studio S36 in Bush House, the home of the BBC World Service.  My Newshour team were coming to the end of a long shift and there was about 15 minutes of programme time to go.  The running order was full, timings were spot on and the programme was going well.  And then came the moment when a newsflash set both my pulse racing and alarm bells in my ears.

A report came in on the BBC newsgathering system that the plane carrying Presidents Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi had crashed near Kigali – all on board were presumed dead.

It’s not every day you get two presidents killed in the same crash, so that alone meant this would develop into a big story for the World Service audience. To compound this, Rwanda and Burundi were two of the most volatile states in Africa.  Their presidents were returning from Arusha in Tanzania from a summit at which pressure was put on Habyarimana to proceed with implementing the Arusha peace Accords designed to end four years of war in Rwanda.  His death would, at the every least, put the accords in doubt, and could potentially lead to full scale civil war or worse.

As I sought more information from BBC newsgathering, the Africa service at Bush, and checked incoming news wires, I was assessing how to cover the story before the programme came off air.  I checked with my studio producer, Fred Dove, if we had room for Rwanda and he said he could make room. So I had to decide.

While not an expert on Rwanda particularly, I had reported stories from inside the country, followed the four year civil war and had a good background knowledge of the decades of conflict, massacres and repression of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda by the Hutu majority.  I knew very well how unstable the ceasefire was between the government and the opposition Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and how an event like this, and any suggestion that the Tutsi-led RPF was responsible for Habyarimana’s death, could lead not just to renewed fighting, but to targeted massacres of Tutsis.  I did not want to risk having any role in starting rumours or broadcasting suggestions that could have catastrophic results. I opted for safety and caution.

As it did for most of Africa and much of the world, my focus now switched to South Africa.  Within days I was in Johannesburg leading the World Service news programme team reporting the elections that were to bring the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela to power.  However, even in the hectic run up to the start of voting on 27 April, the horrifying news from Rwanda was being discussed in South Africa. This now included the killing of the Prime Minister and several ministers in the coalition government and growing evidence of large-scale massacres of Tutsis.

Days before the official announcement of the South African election result  on 6 May, it was clear the ANC had won and international leaders and diplomats were beginning to sound out the new government’s leaders about a South African role in ending the Rwandan violence.  The man soon to become South Africa’s deputy defence minister and a key figure in the new military and intelligence set up, Ronnie Kasrils, told me off the record he was fending off suggestions of a South African-led African force to keep the peace in Rwanda. Over the next couple of months the extent, intent and sheer scale of the attempted genocide became clear.  What also became clear was the role of the media in Rwanda in inciting hatred of and violence against Tutsis and moderate Hutus.  The phrase ‘hate radio’ became synonymous with Rwanda and Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), the Hutu station which encouraged and aided the killings.

That radio should play such a role was an anathema to someone like me who had worked for years in the World Service. I was wedded to the motto on the BBC coat of arms that ‘nation shall speak peace unto nation’ – even though I knew well that, in its own way, the BBC World Service output was, like most other news, a form of propaganda, though a benign and well-intentioned form.  Read more…