Radio Mille Collines and the Limits to Free Speech —by Jinny Batterson
Each of us beyond infancy is, I believe, a product of both nature and nurture. Genetic traits and predispositions we’re born with get adjusted over time by our experiences and our successive re-interpretations of those experiences. I seem to have been born with a predisposition toward nervousness, so it’s probable that the name-calling and mud-slinging that too often inhabit media and political spaces in current-day America feel more threatening and more repugnant to me than they might to someone with a less nervous temperament.
Still, my “nurture” plays a role as well. During the 1980s, I spent two years in the economically impoverished central African country of Burundi working on rural development. Before I went, I did as much research as I could in those pre-internet days about the country I’d be living in for a time: Burundi was for most of its history a sparsely populated, geographically isolated mountainous kingdom with a preponderance of rural herders and farmers. Then, starting in the late 19th century, Burundi became first a German, then a Belgian colony, administered along with neighboring Rwanda. Neither colonial power provided much development support. During their four-plus decades of rule, Belgian administrators often used “divide and conquer” tactics, exacerbating tensions between the area’s two main ethnic groups: the Tutsis, most of whom owned and herded cattle, and the Hutus, who tended instead to farm multiple small plots owned communally by extended families in the Burundian and Rwandan hillsides, or “collines.” Since its early 1960s independence, Burundi’s trajectory has included political assassinations plus a massive ethnic conflict in the early 1970s that killed an estimated 300,000 Burundians.
When I first arrived, I spoke none of the local language, Kirundi. I had little notion of which of my coworkers and neighbors were Tutsi and which were Hutu. Physically similar, with the same language and skin tone, Tutsis and Hutus were sometimes characterized as “talls” and “shorts” in an exaggeration of one trait that distinguishes them at the extremes. Because of intermarriage, a fair number of Burundians were and are a mixture of both groups. During my stay, I gradually built up a very basic Kirundi vocabulary. Though fluency remained beyond my grasp, I understood enough so that when I attended a local soccer game about halfway through my assignment, I recognized the derogatory use of a word meaning “short,” yelled at the opposing team by some nearby spectators. Not quite as offensive as the “n” word in American speech, the epithet was still intended to be disrespectful.
During the 1980s, Burundi and neighboring Rwanda were relatively calm, but starting in 1993 both countries again descended into wholesale bloodletting, with the widely publicized Rwandan genocide of 1994 and a less-media-covered simmering civil war in Burundi. Part of the build-up to the Rwandan genocide consisted of incitements by a privately owned radio station, Radio Mille Collines (Radio of a Thousand Hillsides), against ethnic Tutsis and moderates of all groups. According to a summary by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies:
“From October 1993 to late 1994, Radio-Television-des-Mille-Collines (RTLM) was used by Hutu leaders to advance an extremist Hutu message and anti-Tutsi disinformation, spreading fear of a Tutsi genocide against Hutu, identifying specific Tutsi targets or areas where they could be found, and encouraging the progress of the genocide. In April 1994, Radio Rwanda (the official government station) began to advance a similar message, speaking for the national authorities, issuing directives on how and where to kill Tutsis, and congratulating those who had already taken part.” The Institute has published detailed transcripts of many of these station broadcasts in English, French, or Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan local language.
After the genocide and a change of government in Rwanda, international criminal proceedings brought to trial some of the political leaders of genocide-era Rwanda, along with some of the media leaders who had helped foment hatred with their increasingly strident broadcasts. Not all ringleaders could be located and brought to justice, but 92 high-ranking defendants were indicted for their roles in a 100-day rampage that killed an estimated 800,000 Rwandans.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I sometimes fear for my own country and for our planet. Derogatory speech is again on the rise globally, whether from politicians, media pundits, or just disgruntled citizens and residents. Americans belonging to groups who have in the past been targets of repression and/or genocide—African-Americans, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ persons, among others—feel the impact most deeply, but it affects us all. As one European Jewish leader put it, “While hate speech and incitement is far too often dismissed as bigoted ranting or merely painful words, it can also serve as an important warning sign for much more severe consequences. Almost every genocide, ethnic cleansing or inter-ethnic conflict in modern history was preceded by violent words. We witnessed inflammatory public speech rise steadily before outbreaks of mass violence, whether in Nazi Germany, Rwanda or in the former Yugoslavia.”
Of course we need to be able to express opposing views, but we need to be able to express them civilly, rather than by using name-calling, blaming, or personal attacks. Free speech is not the same as hate speech or incitement—please let us learn and teach the difference before it’s too late.