On the day a Rwandan census announced that 937,000 people died in the 1994 genocide, three of the media bosses instrumental in urging on the massacre have been given small reductions in their jails sentences. In the Tanzanian city of Arusha, the UN Appeals Court for Rwanda has dismissed the charge of conspiracy to commit genocide of two executives of radio Radio Television Libres des Milles Collines (RTLM) and the chief editor of Kangura newspaper. Two of the men have had their life sentences reduced. Ferdinand Nahimana, RTLM’s founder, will now serve 30 years and Hassan Ngeze, Kangura’s editor, will serve 35. RTLM’s director Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza will now serve 32 years instead of 35.
Despite the reductions, the harshness of the sentences reflects the powerful role of the media in communicating the instructions and the enthusiasm for mass murder in Rwanda. Kangura means “wake it up” in the Kinyarwandan language. The newspaper called on citizens (extremist Hutus) to exterminate the "cockroach ethnic Tutsis" and published the "Hutu 10 Commandments" telling people to kill. In the days before the start of the killing the editor Hassan Ngeze wrote: "Let whatever is smouldering erupt.”
Hassan had inside knowledge things were about to erupt. He was a member of the akazu (“the little house”). The akazu was the entourage of the family of long-standing President Juvenal Habyarimana, and his wife Agathe. But the little house turned on the Habyarimanas after the president agreed to sign a peace deal in 1994 with the Tutsi rebels. They ordered his troops to shoot down the president’s plane over the capital on his return from peace talks in Tanzania. There were no survivors (the Burundian president was also aboard and was collaterally assassinated). Immediately, akazu member Colonel Théoneste Bagasora installed a new Hutu Power government. They conveniently blamed the Tutsi rebels for Habyarimana’s death and within 24 hours the genocide had started.
RTLM was the voice of that genocide. It was a creation of Hutu hardliners and began broadcasting in 1993. It had an ominous message: “Tutsi are nomads and invaders who came to Rwanda in search of pasture.” It was the first of the media to announce the President’s death. RTLM would become the primary medium of conducting the genocide that followed. It was quickly to blame Tutsis for Habyarimana’s death. For the next three months it incited and cajoled Hutus to seek revenge and “exterminate the Tutsi cockroaches”. RTLM also broadcast the names and addresses of the country’s Tutsi minority and the Hutus that sympathised with them.
In all of this was the hand of the new government. Authorities knew they could reach a larger audience by radio than by public meetings and urged the people to listen to the radio so that they would know what was expected of them. RTLM was the most popular station in the country with its lively music and informal and spontaneous style. It was a mouthpiece for Hutu Power propaganda. It told the people what was happening in the street and castigated those who were “not doing their duty” and taking part in the massacre. RTLM's chilling message was: “there is no place for moderates”.
By the end of June 1994, a period of just three months, there were very few Tutsis left, moderates or otherwise. The genocide was brutal and efficient. To help with the killing, the army trained up large proportions of the civilian population into a militia called the “Interahamwe.” Only a very small proportion of this makeshift army had guns, most made do with machetes and knives. Together they went on a rampage, indiscriminately killing Tutsis as well as Hutu intellectuals, doctors, nurses and other professionals.
But like the Nazi obsession of exterminating the Jewish population, the Rwandan government was undone by its bloody fixation for killing Tutsis. The rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took advantage of the chaos to seize control of the country and end the genocide. The Interahamwe, and with them the RTLM and Kangura bosses, fled across the border to President Mbuto’s camps in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). There they continued to hassle and raid Rwanda for several years until the RPF supported Laurent Kabila to overthrow their patron Mbuto. They destroyed the power of the militia but the action brought in nine countries and set in motion eight years of war that devastates Congo to this day.