As we extol the possibilities of information and communication technologies (ICT) as the agents of positive social change, we also have to accept the painful corollary that its influence can also be negative.
It has been widely acknowledged that radio talk shows played a major role in sowing seeds of ethnic hatred that eventually led to the Rwandan genocide in 1994. So much so that Rwanda’s RTLM (Radio Television Libre Des Mille Collines), infamously nicknamed the Hate Radio, has seen many of its former stars convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the gacaca courts. Producer Georges Ruggiu sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. Founder Ferdinand Nahimana – 30 years. Correspondent Hassan Ngeze – 35 years. Board Chair Jean Bosco Barayagwiza – 32 years. Folk musician Simon Bikindi – 15 years. Talk show host Valerie Bemeriki – life imprisonment.
RTLM stands witness to the possibility of communication technologies becoming tools for unspeakable horror in the hands of evil. Thankfully, the story does not end there.
In an article titled Airborne Peace (subscription required to read), the Spring edition of Stanford Social Innovation Review highlights Musekeweya (New Dawn) a soap opera on Radio Rwanda that an estimated 85% of radio listeners tune in to. “Using a Romeo and Juliet plot to symbolize Hutus and Tutsis, the program teaches listeners how to prevent ethnic violence, embrace reconciliation, and heal the wounds of the past.”
The radio show is the brainchild of filmmaker George Weiss, who founded the Dutch NGO Radio La Benevolencija to utilize broadcast media to promote the community-based healing approach to genocide developed by psychologist Ervin Staub (author of Roots of Evil) and traumatologist Laurie Pearlman. The episodes, written by Rwandan writers, use fictional conflict between the villages of Bumanzi and Muhumuro to exhort listeners to become “active bystanders” who can lead the previously warring groups to “a deeply engaging process of reconciliation.”
Musekeweya is not only popular, it is also having an impact on society. The La Benevolencija Reconciliation Radio Project: Musekweya’s First Year Evaluation Report found that while the program did not impart factual or descriptive information, it did “communicate and reinforce positive social norms regarding prejudice and reconciliation.”
Technologies such as radio are neither the problem nor the panacea for social ills. They are merely tools that can enable and empower the powerful and powerless, the victimizer and victim. Radio, a potent tool of hate in the hands of the wrong people in Rwanda seems to have turned over a new leaf. For the sake of Rwanda and the world, let us hope that Hate Radio of the past gives up its leadership mantle to Reconciliation Radio and becomes a powerful force for sustainable and just peace.