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Review – Radio Propaganda and the Broadcasting of Hatred

Keith Somerville's analysis of radio propaganda answers a lot of questions about what hate propaganda is, but avoids many deeper and more interesting questions.
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What does hate sound like on the radio? It’s not hard to intuit the answer. The notorious broadcasts of Rwanda’s Radio-Télévision Libre de Milles Collines come quickly to mind, and although less toxic and deliberate, Kenya’s vernacular stations aren’t far behind, thanks to their much publicised role in that country’s 2007 presidential election. BBC World Service veteran Keith Somerville delves into both case studies in his book Radio Propaganda and the Broadcasting of Hatred, which aims to form a definition of hate propaganda and broadcasting.

To do that, Somerville first defines propaganda and traces its historical development. The birth of the word stems back to 1622, when Pope Gregory XV established the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, which busied itself with counter-spinning Martin Luther’s persuasive Reformist rhetoric. In the Thirty Years War, precipitated in part from these religious divisions, propagandistic accounts of the enemy’s atrocities were used to compel people into combat. Because few people could read, images were produced to broaden the influence, but verbal messages were also delivered with greater uniformity. Propaganda became increasingly ubiquitous, and those in power deployed it to shape popular opinion on major events like the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the Boer War and the two World Wars.

As newer technologies were introduced and literacy skills grew more common, the world’s mental environment grew more cluttered with messaging. Radio, in particular, brought the whole concept of propaganda back to the preacher dynamic. Through radio, one speaker addressed an audience, regardless of its literacy skills, except now the audience had grown and the speaker could reach people in their homes, at work, or in the countryside. He could convey his passion directly, with the electric charisma of his voice, and the audience could listen together, rather than as individuals reading a cumbersome text in solitude. Media continued to evolve and collide throughout our most recent history, but the most important distinction to note is that while some of the messages disseminated are benign, others are malignant, like the acid broadcasts of Nazi Germany.

The constants of all propaganda are straightforward enough: The message has to be simple. It has to be repeated regularly. It can’t be completely radical, but rather has to riff off some pre-existing sentiment. It works best when it’s emotional, and it always intends to shape opinion and inspire action, even if that action is just the public’s support for a government’s policies. Hate propaganda involves all these tenets. The difference is in the type of incitement it inspires.

“Radio Machete”

The role of Radio-Télévision Libre de Milles Collines (RTLM) in the 1994 Rwandan genocide is a well-trodden topic. The incestuous relationship between members of Hutu power and RTLM has been well-documented, and indictments from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda have been cited across a myriad of headlines, reports, analyses, and books in the nearly 20 years since the genocide.

Somerville sets the context for the RTLM broadcasts with a causal and oft-told history of what brought Rwanda to genocide: the pre-colonial social system and identities of Hutu and Tutsi; false and racist ethnographic research hardening those identities; Belgian manipulation of them and favouritism of Tutsis; post-colonial Hutu nationalism in Rwanda and Tutsi hegemony in neighbouring Burundi; economic malaise; repeated post-colonial outbreaks of violence between Hutus and Tutsis leading up to 1994; a civil war in the early 1990s. Propagandists, Somerville finds, only had to flip around the same false mythologies about primordial tribal pressures to build their message. The conditions for its reception had long been primed.

Somerville’s definition of propaganda is easy to see here. Post-colonial violence between Hutus and Tutsis provided the pre-existing tension. Atrocity stories of Tutsi malevolence gradually stoked people for action and, combined with suggestions that poor Hutus were blocked from wealth by greedy Tutsis, they easily swayed public emotions. Repetition, meanwhile, was no problem, thanks to widespread use of radios in Rwanda, the station’s hip façade, and the relative absence of other Kinyarwanda media. And the message was of course simple to understand: There is no difference between regular Tutsis and the rebels, so kill them and their Hutu sympathisers before they destroy you.

This message offers Somerville the material he needs for his definition of hate propaganda. The nature of incitement was violent. It soared above and beyond any sane notion of free speech and was either responsible for – or was at least a component of – scores of egregious human rights violations based on prejudice toward a certain group of people. It was clearly not an issue of mobilising people to vote, enlist in the army, or ponder the auspices of new legislation.

The RTLM was no accident of incompetent journalism. It played a proactive role in reporting staged incidents framed as rebel attacks and its broadcasters read out the names of many people who became the targets of death squads shortly thereafter. The “Radio Machete” moniker sometimes floated in genocide literature is therefore appropriate.

Rift radio?

As with the Rwandan case study, Somerville sketches the historical context that led Kenyan into crisis after the 2007 election. Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity once campaigned together against long-time strongman Daniel arap Moi’s chosen successor, but by 2007 they were rivals with five years of unresolved tensions. The country’s 2005 constitutional referendum was marred by violence in the Rift Valley, Mombasa, and Kisumu, as Odinga and Kibaki wrangled to reform power structures in favour of their respective government positions. These tensions went unresolved as Kenya churned ahead into the 2007 election campaign, which Kibaki is widely seen to have rigged. Three months of violence saw as many as 1,500 people dead and 660,000 displaced.

The young and still-blooming vernacular radio sector is widely suspected for inciting people to violence, and one popular broadcaster and ODM supporter, Joshua arap Sang, was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2012. Sang was a morning host on Kass FM, which broadcast in the Kalenjin language, and he denies inciting violence in the Rift Valley. While it is generally accepted that post-election violence was organised by political interests rather than a series of spontaneous public outbursts, linking it to a colluding media isn’t easy, especially when transcripts are hard to come by.

An oft-quoted defence of the Kenyan media is its level of incompetence. Talk shows are a popular format and moderators weren’t able to manage the comments of their guests. Ownership is partisan and employees are recruited based on political stripe. They may not be the snarling polemicists of RTLM, but their biases certainly plot them somewhere on the same continuum. Meanwhile, the industry suffers from many of the typical ailments of media in developing countries, including spotty educational opportunities and poor remuneration.

Not what but how

What the Kenyan case study offers Somerville’s search for a definition of hate propaganda is as vague as the data is incomplete. And as he works his way into his conclusion, it becomes more and more clear that we already have a definition of hate propaganda laid out in the scores of covenants, declarations, and treaties that make up the international community’s human rights annals.

At the same time, his focus on radio seems increasingly unnecessary, and even restrictive. That radio offers propagandists certain advantages over print or television is certainly interesting, but what it has to do with the actual definition of hate propaganda is another matter entirely. The fact that Somerville repeatedly nods to the influential role played by print media in his case studies – take the Hutu nationalist magazine Kangura, for example – suggests that he can’t quite separate them himself.

If he had broadened his focus to other media, his case studies might have extended to less often discussed but more firmly documented crises like the one in the Ivory Coast and the role of Radiodiffusion-Télévision Ivoirienne in inciting violence there, or even the multinational and hysterical coverage of the African clerical and government response to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2011 call for the continent to respect gay rights or lose aid dollars.

A study like that might pose more compelling questions than simply what hate propaganda is. Questions such as: How does hate propaganda manifest in different historical contexts? How are hateful values absorbed by citizens who, once they become journalists, propagate them without overt guidance? And how does propaganda change shape when countries shift from repression to press freedom?

We already know the ‘what’. It’s now the ‘how’ that needs more study.

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For further reading around the subject see:

 

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Comments

It's worth directing your attention to a study of the effects of RTLM in the run up to and during the genocide. There's evidence that the radio station actually had a marginal effect on either promoting or perpetuating the genocide. Which feeds into the issue, more broadly, that media effects viz propaganda are generally overstated. You can find a copy of the paper at www.ushmm.org/genocide/spv/pdf/straus_scott.pdf