“Radios Don’t Kill People, People Kill People”: Radio Use in the Rwandan Genocide

By: Katie Welch
Figure 1. Over the course of 100 days, between 500,000-800,000 Tutsis were systematically slaughtered by the same Hutus they had coexisted with for so many years. (Image source: Christian Davenport, Political Violence at a Glance, 2014)

In Rwanda, the Hutu and the Tutsi—the two dominant ethnic groups in the country— have lived side-by-side for years as neighbors, students and teachers, family and friends. Suddenly and without warning, on April 6, 1994, then-president of Burundi and Hutu Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in an assassination.[1] Over the course of the following 100 days, between 500,000-800,000 Tutsis were systematically slaughtered by the same Hutus they had coexisted with for so many years. Ultimately, 75% of the entire Tutsi population and 20% of Rwanda’s total population was killed in the mass slaughter.[2] The Rwandan genocide was largely dismissed by the international community until years later, and many were baffled by the deeply personal nature of the attacks and the speed with which they were conducted. However, upon closer examination of the period leading up to the attacks and during the killings, it is clear that radio broadcasts were used as propaganda to galvanize the Hutu population against the Tutus. Radio was used by Hutu officials to broadcast information, strategize and coordinate attacks, and dehumanize neighboring Tutsis. In this paper, I will be examining the role of radio as propaganda in the Rwandan genocide, focusing on the rhetoric of the two primary radio stations, Radio Rwanda and the RTLM. The construction of Hutu identity and the demonization of Tutsis in Rwandan radio had a direct impact on Hutu participation in the genocide and their perception of Tutsis.

1. Historical Context

The relationship between the two ethnic groups prior to 1994 was complex and strained by years of conflict. Hutu and Tutsi identity was solidified in 1933, in which Belgian colonists issued a census and distributed ethnic identity cards to the Rwandan population.[3]  European colonial influence greatly shaped the relationship between the two groups. Prior to the colonization, Hutus and Tutsis shared many similarities, including the same language and customs. The primary difference between the two groups was occupation, and Tutsis were known for cattle breeding while Hutus were relegated to agriculture.[4] This created an economic and social divide, as cattle were associated with wealth in Rwanda, and there were a number of Tutsi kings. Upon the arrival of European colonists, these differences were emphasized further. The Europeans attempted to discern differences in appearance between the two, although ethnic identify was sometimes conflated with cattle ownership.[5] “More than ten [cows], a person was a Tutsi, less than ten a Hutu,” scholar Jason McCoy describes the European method of ethnic identification. This social divide led to resentment, and some Tutsi refugees fled to nearby countries; this would eventually lead to the development of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF.[6] In an attempt to reclaim their homeland, the RPF reentered northern Rwanda in the start of what became the Rwandan Civil War. The Rwandan vice president described the RPF as inyenzi, or “cockroaches”, that were infesting Rwanda; this implied a need for the extermination of the RPF and, by extension, Tutsis.[7] Myths of Tutsi oppression combined with the war increased fear and hatred of the Tutsi minority. This had an impact on everyday life and the tensions between the coexisting groups. “I did grow up listening to history lessons and radio programs that were always talking about major problems between Hutus and Tutsis,” admits one participant in the genocide.[8] Another points to the role of teachers in spreading this belief, noting that “they used to tell [the students] that Tutsis were wicked; that they offended Hutus.”[9] One Hutu participant in the genocide also commented on common anti-Tutsi mythology: “I heard that the king would ask for a Hutu child and lean on him with a spear as he is standing up. That made me hate Tutsis seriously.”[10] In the responses from participants in the genocide, this is a frequent reference. There are several references from multiple participants to a myth in which a Tutsi king would spear Hutu children; many of these participants pointed to this myth as one reason for their initial dislike of Tutsis.[11] The construction of the Tutsis as barbaric, murderous enemies was pervasive and preceded the 1994 genocide.

2. Rwandan Radio Use

Prior to the 1994 genocide, radio was the primary source of information for most Rwandan citizens. Up until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1990, the only station was Radio Rwanda, which was seen as an extension of the government.[12] Its broadcasts were dry and largely informational; however, Radio Rwanda was not strictly factual. In March 1992, the station brroadcast a communiqué— allegedly from a human rights group— warning of an impending Tutsi attack and encouraging Hutus to take offensive measures.[13] This was the first, but certainly not the last, use of Rwanda’s radio broadcasts to support the murder of Tutsi citizens. Government officials were not unaware of the potential for radio use. In 1993, Colonel Théoneste Bagosora drafted outlines for “self-defense” forces comprised of the Hutu civilian population.[14] These outlines were later used in the early stages of the genocide. Bagasora noted the potential use of radio in his plans, even specifically naming a musician—Simon Bikindi— as a possible source to help galvanize Hutus.

Around the same time Bagasora began to consider radio as a tool for propaganda, a new broadcast station emerged to counteract Radio Rwanda’s dull format: Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille, or RTLM.[15] This was presented as a lively alternative to Radio Rwanda, and it used charismatic presenters, comedy skits, and music to entertain its audience. The difference between the two stations was also illustrated in their separate responses to the assassination of the president; whereas Radio Rwanda’s news broadcast was immediately cut and replaced with classical music, RTLM continued to offer information to its listeners.[16] Rwandan listeners began to distrust Radio Rwanda due to its complicated relationship with the government, whereas RTLM seemingly provided constant news updates. However, RTLM was not a source of reliable information. After the launch of the radio station, RTLM had almost immediately begun to promote anti-Tutsi views. In February of 1994, RTLM had mimicked the earlier efforts of Radio Rwanda and warned of a false attack from the RPF. The result was the death of 70 citizens at the hands of Hutu spurred to action by the broadcast.[17] Immediately following the death of the president, who was killed by a bayonet wound, RTLM reported that he had been brutally tortured and even castrated by the assassins.[18]

Following the assassination, there was a notable change in the rhetoric used in broadcasts from both station. The RTLM began to frame the assassination as the first step in a widespread attack against Hutus, calling for them to “rise up as a single man.”[19] The call for Hutu unity began to strengthen a sense of ethnic and community identity. The term “inyenzi” also began to appear more frequently, and much of the rhetoric dehumanized Tutsis. One RTLM announcer argued that Tutsi would be exterminated in the future, while another stated that “the cruelty of the inyenzi can be cured only by their total extermination.”[20] Similarly, Radio Rwanda broadcast a political debate two weeks later in which one politician suggested that Tutsi refugees returning home intended to kill all Hutus “until they are the only ones left in the country so that they can keep for a thousand years the power that their fathers had kept for four hundred years.”[21] This once again reiterated the myth of historical oppression at the hands of Tutsi kings. As Jean Marie Higiro, the director of Radio Rwanda, described, RTLM “was a conversation without a moderator and without any requirement as to the truth of what was said.”[22]

Despite its perception as an unmediated voice for the Hutu people, RTLM also provided information for the Interahamwe militia. After President Habyarimana’s assassination, a new interim government was immediately put in place with the help of Colonel Bagosora, the man who had previously conceived of anti-Tutsi “self-defense” squads and was later identified as the leader of the genocide. The information read aloud on radio broadcasts was not simply radical propaganda— it also contained specific instructions for the killings. Whereas Radio Rwanda provided orders from authorities, RTLM offered lists of known Tutsis, including their names, addresses and even their license plate numbers.[23] The orders were clear and instructional, and the killings were highly organized. One official on Radio Rwanda instructed listeners to “to search houses, beginning with those that are abandoned, to search the marshes of the area to be sure no inyenzi have slipped in to hide there.”[24] Another official told nearby residents that the orders broadcast over radio had the same authority as orders from him. One participant in the killings argues that the specifics of the genocide had preceded the death of the president, noting that, “The platforms of all the Hutu political parties had been political parties had been proposing Tutsi killings since 1992. Those agendas were descriptive and meticulous. They were read aloud at meetings and warmly applauded. They were read over radio.”[25] Although the anti-Tutsi sentiment in Rwanda was evident prior to April 6, 1994, the use of radio was necessarily to effectively spread the message. Over the course of the genocide, RTLM broadcast had 24 hour broadcasts to maximize their reach. The instructions were successful; 172,000-210,000 people participated in the mass killings, comprising approximately 14-17% of the adult male Hutu population.[26] Samantha Power, a U.S. reporter, notes that “killers often carried a machete in one hand and a transistor radio in the other.”[27] Yet when United States ambassador Prudence Bushnell attempted to appeal to White House officials to intervene in RTLM broadcasts, one official dismissed her claims, exclaiming, “Pru, radios don’t kill people. People kill people!”[28]

3. Rhetoric and Propaganda Technique

The rhetoric of the Rwandan genocide was cloaked in euphemisms and innuendos. The RPF and, more broadly, all Tutsis were referred to as inyenzi in radio broadcasts. The comparison of Tutsis to insects— specifically cockroaches— is linked to the calls for their extermination. The dehumanization of the entire ethnic group allowed for Hutus perpetrators to distance themselves from the reality of their violence. “In a way,” admitted one of the killers, “I forgot I was killing live people.”[29] This is a common theme in the statements of men convicted for their participation in the genocide. There are consistent references to a lack of emotion or empathy felt by the killers, as well as their failure to recognize their targets as human. Gaspard Gahigi, a host for RTLM, stated that “all the people got up and fought against the inyenzi” on the first day of the mass killings.[30] The RPF was also portrayed as brutal to the point of inhumanity. In one broadcast, a presenter told listeners that the RPF “kill by dissecting… by extracting various organs from the body… for example, by taking the ear, the liver, the stomach… the inyenzi-inkotanyi eat men.”[31] The conflation of all Tutsi civilians with a false image of the RPF implied that all Tutsis were a potential bloodthirsty enemy. This language inspired fear in the station’s Hutu audience, and they viewed the Tutsi as a threat to their own identity. “On the radio stations, Tutsis were accused accomplices,” one perpetrator states, “The refugees told us that they grind children and open pregnant mothers’ wombs to see the baby’s position. All those accusations changed the way we viewed them.”[32]

In addition to the dehumanization of the Tutsis, both Radio Rwanda and RTLM employed a curious euphemism in reference to the mass murder of their neighbors. In one broadcast from the genocide, a presenter can be heard saying, “Soldiers, soldiers, and all who are in their positions, anywhere you are, those who are carrying out the work, those who are keeping watch, all of you, all of you– RTLM is your radio!”[33] The description of the genocide as “work” allowed for Hutu perpetrators to renegotiate the meanings of their actions. This resituates the violence within the context of duty and community responsibility. Euphemisms such as this are common in propaganda; they allow the perpetrators to express their actions through seemingly harmless language, softening the impact and preventing opposition. One convicted killer describes his experience during the genocide: “For the killings… everybody had to show up blade in hand and pitch in for a decent stretch of work.”[34] This sense of responsibility was enforced by the rhetoric employed by radio broadcasters. RTLM often interviewed otherwise ordinary Hutu citizens to ask about their participation in the genocide; when one man told a presenter he had killed five Tutsis, he was encouraged to keep going.[35] Large groups of people, primarily men, would listen to the radio collectively to strategize for the next day of killings. “It was work,” one man pointed out in an interview, “It was to know what to do.”[36] The radio provided instructions for participation in the genocide and used a rhetoric of duty— to both the country and to the Hutu community— to promote the slaughter.

The formatting of RTLM as a source of both news and entertainment was especially effective in promoting anti-Tutsi sentiment. The use of music throughout their coverage during the genocide was very appealing to its listeners. One of the most notable musicians is Simon Bikindi, the man Colonel Bagosora proposed as a possible source of aid for the state-sponsored murders. Bikindi was a well-liked, popular musician in Rwanda in the years leading up to 1994; one UN official even described him as “Rwanda’s Michael Jackson”.[37] Bikindi is not only one of Rwanda’s most famous musicians— he is also one of their most infamous war criminals. In 2001, he was arrested to be tried before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Bikindi was sentenced to fifteen years of incarceration for his role in inciting violence against Tutsis through his music.[38] Prior to the start of the genocide, Bikindi had done some work for the government, and most of his songs were pleasant and catchy. However, the tone of his songs quickly changed. Two of the songs mentioned in his indictment are “Bene Sebahinzi”, also known as “Sons of the Father of the Farmers”, and “Nanga Abahutu”, or “I Hate Hutus”.[39] Although his songs do not directly mention Tutsis by name or explicitly call for violence against the group, his use of euphemistic language is still clear to Rwandan listeners. In his song “I Hate Hutus”, he rails against Hutus who, he argues, have turned their back on the community. “I hate these Hutus, these de-Hutuized Hutus, who have renounced their identity,” he sings.[40] The reference to the renunciation of Hutu identity would be clear to any listener; it has often been associated with a Hutu marrying a Tutsi.[41] This revives the constant theme of Hutu identity, largely constructed in opposition to the Tutsis. The singer’s implied criticisms of Hutu association with Tutsi illustrates this, framing Hutus who engage with Tutsis as traitors to their community. Association with Tutsis, he implies, results in a loss of the Hutu identity— you become a “de-Hutuized Hutu.” Bikindi’s songs were broadcast on RTLM constantly, providing a soundtrack to the violence. Eyewitnesses to the massacres have described Hutu men cheerfully singing the songs while killing Tutsi men, women and children.[42] The format of the RTLM and its position as a humorous, engaging alternative to Radio Rwanda initially drew its listeners after its launch in 1993, and it continued to attract Hutus during the genocide. At first, even Tutsis continued to listen to the station for the music despite its dehumanizing rhetoric. “Sometimes, at home, we listened to the RTLM,” one survivor admitted, “They [the RTLM presenters] said they would kill the inyenzi.” Another survivor named Rwililiza echoes this sentiment:

“The gentlemen [the RTLM presenters] were famous artists, great comic virtuosos. What they said was so cleverly put, and repeated so often, that we Tutsis as well, we found them funny to listen to. They were clamoring for the massacre of all the cockroaches, but in amusing ways. For us, the Tutsis, those witty words were hilarious. The songs urging all the Hutus to get together to wipe out the Tutsis—we laughed out loud at the jokes.”[43]

4. Identity and Impact

Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson identity the granfalloon propaganda technique as “proud and meaningless associations of human beings.”[44] The construction of a group identity, regardless of how arbitrary it is, can be a powerful force. As Pratkanis and Aronson note, a negative consequence of a granfalloon is the subsequent dehumanization of the out-group. A granfalloon fulfills two primary purposes—it allows members to easily process and label the world around them, and it provides a sense of social satisfaction. Once an individual accepts their place within a granfalloon, they feel obligated to defend it from out-groups. The ethnic identities of Hutu and Tutsis are not as arbitrarily constructed as the examples used by Pratkanis and Aronson; however, the introduction of the European census and identity cards did result in a largely artificial distinction between the groups. The emphasis on the minimal differences between the Hutus and Tutsis, exacerbated by political and social disparity, led to the dehumanization of the Tutsis. The RTLM’s branding of all Tutsis as members of the RPF worsened this negative perception. Years later, some perpetrators convicted for their role in the genocide still use the rhetoric espoused by officials and radio broadcasts during the killings. One man describes a sense of satisfaction during the genocide: “We obeyed on all sides, and we found satisfaction in that. Suddenly Hutus of every kind were patriotic brothers without any partisan discord.”[45] This sense of patriotism and brotherhood was a contributing factor to the violence. The emphasis of the RTLM on unity and duty to the community compelled some men to take part in the killings of their neighbors. This collective identity was balanced by the demonization of the Tutsis. This did not always manifest itself in outright hatred prior to the genocide. Instead, it was a desire to be create a distinction between Hutus and Tutsis. “Maybe we did not hate all the Tutsis, especially our neighbors, and may we did not see them as our wicked enemies,” Pio, one of the perpetrators admits, “But among ourselves we said we no longer wanted to live together. We even said we did not want them anywhere around us anymore.” He notes that he cannot remember why he began to dislike Tutsis, and recalled fond memories playing soccer with Tutsi teammates. “Hatred just showed up at the killing time.” Another man, Pancrace, also pointed out that the radio was promoting violence against Tutsis prior to the genocide. However, he argues, that is not the same as hatred—“it is suspicion, not hatred.”[46] It is clear that even now, some perpetrators of the violence refuse to admit the extent of their own culpability. Instead, they fall back on the familiar rhetoric of RTLM broadcasters, labelling Tutsi as naturally suspicious individuals in an attempt to justify their actions.

The question of radio’s direct influence on participation in the Rwandan genocide is a complex one. It can be problematic to attribute too much of individual action to the impact of propaganda. This assumes the audience is an entirely passive entity, lacking the ability to think critically or negotiate meaning from the text. However, the role of radio both prior to and throughout the genocide is significant and must be considered. After an investigation, the ICTR Appeals Chamber found the RTLM’s broadcast contributed notably to acts of genocide in Rwanda.[47] Yanagiwaza-Drott’s reconstruction of broadcast radius during the genocide also suggests a correlation between radio coverage and increased participation in the violence.[48] Ultimately, the use of radio as a tool for broadcast in the Rwandan genocide worsened preexisting tensions between the two groups and emphasized the construction of a united Hutu identity. The rhetoric of presenters at both Radio Rwanda and RTLM employed common propaganda techniques, including granfalloons and name-calling, to both solidify the Hutu community and dehumanize Tutsis. This contributed to the active participation of Hutus in the mass slaughter of their Tutsi neighbors.

[1] Nicholas Scull, Christophe Mbonyingabo, and Mayriam Kotb, 2016, “Transforming ordinary people into killers: A psychosocial examination of Hutu participation in the Tutsi genocide”, Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 22, no 4: 334-344.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jason McCoy, 2009, “Making Violence Ordinary: Radio, Music, and the Rwandan Genocide,” African Music 8, no. 3: 85.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See: Scull, Mbonyingabo, and Kotb.

[7] See: McCoy.

[8] Jean Hatzfeld, 2005, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, Macmillan, p. 167.

[9] See: Scull, Mbonyingabo, and Kotb.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Allan Thompson, 2007, The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, London International Development Research Centre.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Samuel Totten, 2011, We Cannot Forget: Interviews with Survivors of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, Rutgers University Press.

[16] Darryl Li, 2004, “Echoes of Violence: Considerations on Radio and Genocide in Rwanda”, Journal of Genocide Research 6, no: 1:9.

[17] Ibid.

[18] See: Thompson.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] See: McCoy.

[23] Samantha Power, 2001 “Bystanders to Genocide”, The Atlantic.

[24] See: Thompson.

[25] Machete Season, p. 177.

[26] See: Scull, Mbonyingabo, and Kotb.

[27] See: Power.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Machete Season, p. 49.

[30] See: Scull, Mbonyingabo, and Kotb.

[31] Ibid.

[32] See: Scull, Mbonyingabo, and Kotb..

[33] See: McCoy.

[34] Machete Season, p. 13.

[35] See: Li.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Donald McNeil, Jr., 2002, “Killer Songs,” The New York Times, March 17, 2002.

[38] Jason McCoy, 2009, “Making Violence Ordinary: Radio, Music, and the Rwandan Genocide,” African Music 8, no. 3: 85.

[39] Donald McNeil, Jr., 2002, “Killer Songs,” The New York Times, March 17, 2002.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] See: McCoy.

[43] Machete Season, p. 55.

[44] Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson, 2001, Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion, Macmillan, p. 217.

[45] Machete Season, p. 16.

[46] Ibid, p. 219

[47] David Yanagizawa-Drott, 2014, “Propaganda and Conflict: Evidence from the Rwandan Genocide”, Quarterly Journal Of Economics 129, no. 4: 1947.

[48] Ibid.