Hate speech

The Genocide in Rwanda a case Study on Hate Speech and Fake News


One of the most wanted men responsible for the death of more than 800,000 people during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 was arrested near Paris on May 16th, last year. Felicien Kabuga, the businessman and the co-founder of RTLM radio, the vicious mouthpiece of the Hutu militiamen in Rwanda before and during the genocide had been on the run for 26 years.

Although the barbaric attacks against the Tutsis that year was triggered by a plane crash in which the Hutu President of Rwanda Juvenal Habyarimana was killed near Capital Kigali, the hate against Tutsis was already instilled into the minds of the majority Hutus by venomous propaganda carried out by RTLM. It was founded for this very purpose. 

In any society, hate speech goes in hand-in-hand with fake news. RTLM’s programmes were filled with both hate and fake stories about Tutsi “conspiracies” for the extermination of Hutus. “Their population is growing fast, they will become the majority someday, they are desecrating our, they are an uncivilized lot” were some of the propaganda themes broadcast over RTLM. With other radio stations struggling for funds and due to the popularity of these themes, RTLM was able to take their message of hate to every Hutu household across Rwanda.

Thus, it was only a tiny stone that needed to be flung from one side to the other side of the ethnic divide to create an inferno across Rwanda which would burn down thousands of Tutsi houses. What happened was more of a thunderbolt than a tiny stone when the private plane carrying Habyarimana was  brought down allegedly by a missile on April 6, 1994.

This was a best case in point to prove how dangerous and catastrophic hate speech and fake news are. Taking a closer look at communal riots in any country, one would find a media campaign poisoning the minds of one community against another, on the eve of any communal carnage.

Prior to the ethnic riots in Sri Lanka in 1958, 1961, 1977, 1981, 1983, and the recent riots of 2014 in Aluthgama and 2019 in Digana, venomous campaigns were carried out on  both mainstream and social media. It was the Sinhala-only Act and the anti-“Sri” campaign that became subject matters in the hate campaign before the 1958 riots. The Vaddukkoddai resolution by the TULF in 1976 and the subsequent discourse filled with hate that shaped the mindset of the anti-Tamil riots of 1961, 1977 and 1981, and the 1983 pogrom.  The controversies over Halal, cattle slaughter and Arabization were used to instill fear and hate among Sinhalese prior to the 2014 and 2019 riots. 

Unethical journalism instead of a healthy discussion over contentious issues has always been the culprit and hence only proper awareness campaigns on media ethics would help minimize the recurrence of such social disasters in the long run. 

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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