Once filled with hate, radio now spins Kenny Rodgers.
By Mary Wiltenburg. This article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 2004
KIGALI, RWANDA — Radio 10 sits at the top of a red Kigali hill. Hastily assembled in January when the station’s broadcast license came through suddenly, the studio has the look of a college NPR affiliate tacked together in an era friendlier to electric-blue carpeting.
The staff is young, hip, and articulate. In their first few weeks of broadcasting, they’ve broken all the rules of old-school Rwandan radio. Programs have included listener call-ins, a chatty morning show, modern pop music, and a children’s trivia contest whose winners got to talk on-air.
Ten years ago, Rwandan radio broke the rules too – but to horrific ends. Fierce, beguiling, and radical, “the voice of genocide” – Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (1,000 Hills Free Radio, or RTLM) – drew uncounted Rwandans into its hateful embrace. “The graves are not yet full,” a host famously warned. “Who will help us to fill them?”
Rwanda was listening. Radio proved the ideal tool to mobilize up to a quarter of the country’s population – armed with machetes, clubs, and a few guns – to undertake the work of butchering nearly a million of their Tutsi and moderate Hutu countrymen, friends, and neighbors in the space of 100 days.
Wednesday the country commemorates the anniversary of the start of the killing with pomp and circumstance: 10 international heads of state and some 500 reporters will gather here in the capital. But recently Rwanda marked a decade of relative peace in a quieter way, when Radio 10 became its first private broadcaster since the venomous RTLM was silenced in July 1994. Now, Radio 10 and four other stations starting up have a chance to redeem Rwandan radio’s deadly legacy. What they make of that chance – whether as a truly independent voice or simply as part of what some observers see as Rwanda’s Potemkin village of democracy – will, in the months and years ahead, say much about the state of this small nation.
It’s a bare-bones affair: four rooms, empty but for their modern computer and broadcasting equipment. Marie Noël Mugema, one of Radio 10’s young hosts, cues up tracks for a country-music show. American hip-hop fills the control room. “Doesn’t sound very country, does it?” she worries.
Some call the station’s programming trivial. Willy Rukundo, station manager of the venerable government news outlet Radio Rwanda, confesses that he and his colleagues tune into Radio 10 to see what they are up to. “But what I’m hearing is, ‘Oh, how are you? What did you have for breakfast?’ ” he says from behind a ponderous pile of books. “I am not concerned with breakfast.”
Marie Chantal Zingiro, Radio 10’s communications director, says the station aims – in French, English, and the local Kinyarwanda – to provide Rwandans with the practical information they need “to understand how to live properly after 1994.” While the cost of rice might not seem hard-hitting, she says, “We’re going to be very careful, of course, with the words we are using; we’re not going to criticize any particular party. We don’t want to be closed for saying stupid things on the radio. But we can’t hide. Life is political.”
Perhaps nowhere is life more political than here, a country where to have survived the decimation of a population is automatically to be a murder suspect. President Paul Kagame, whose Tutsi-led rebel army brought an end to the genocide in July 1994, has tried to legislate against that legacy, criminalizing “divisive” speech and abolishing the ethnic identity cards that helped the génocidaires, as the killers were known, to target their victims. Community courts now offer a forum where victims can confront their attackers.
But such laws can only do so much. After 10 years, many observers say the country has barely begun to move forward – and cannot, truly, in the absence of a free press.
“If you want to say you’re a democracy, you can’t continue not to allow private radio,” says Julia Crawford, Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “But powerful people want to maintain power,” sometimes at great cost to their international credibility, she says.
Into this fraught climate stepped businessman Eugene Nyagahene, head of Tele 10, Rwanda’s first private TV station. The $125,000 he laid out to start Radio 10, he said, was a small price to pay for the chance “to give the microphone to the public.”
Rwandan information minister Laurent Nkusi called the station opening “a living signal that we have made a lot of progress” in 10 years. But, he warns, there are dangers to such an endeavor. In December, two of RTLM’s top broadcasters became the second and third members of the press in history to be convicted of genocide by an international court. This time around, Mr. Nkusi says, the Rwandan government will monitor stations for signs of divisiveness.
Little monitoring was going on in 1994. During the last week of March that year, American HIV researcher Chris Taylor was eating with friends in a Kigali bar. RTLM was on in the background when the presenters began chanting, “Hutu power, Hutu power….” The bar crowd joined the chant, pounding on the tables, stamping their feet, shouting with increasing frenzy, “Hutu power.” One of the friends sitting with Mr. Taylor was tall, with the angular features often associated with Rwandan Tutsis, an easy target for a drunken mob. The group finished their food, and left in a hurry. Taylor soon made it out of Rwanda in an American convoy. His Tutsi friend was not so fortunate.
The following week, journalist Faustin Kagame (no relation to the president) tuned in to the station and turned on his tiny tape recorder. Raving and apparently drunk, host Noheli Hitimana advised listeners that in the next few days they would “hear the noise of bullets or … the explosions of the grenades.” He warned that Paul Kagame’s rebel army “should listen well, [because] one day they will have to explain to their people and to all humanity how they caused Rwanda’s sons to die.”
“People were fascinated,” Kagame remembers. “Radio normally communicated the power of the state; this was the first time they used the language of the street. [RTLM] broke all the taboos, and the young people were captivated.”
Three days later, a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down. Within an hour, roadblocks had gone up around the capital and the slaughter had begun in earnest.
Such was the power of Rwandan radio. Now Radio 10 and its fellow new stations – Contact Radio, Flash FM, Izuba, and a station at the University of Butare journalism school – will become potent symbols of Rwanda today. If, as Contact Radio founder Albert Rudatsimburwa says, the new stations mean President Kagame truly intends to open the country to independent journalism, he has made a sharp turn away from half a century of dictatorship.
But journalists and aid workers in Kigali are dubious. The government, they say, has reason to want the semblance of a free press in Rwanda to please international aid donors, particularly those wary after a questionable election last year in which Kagame won 95 percent of the vote. It has little patience, however, with criticism of its policies.
There’s even some indication that it’s punishing such criticism. Last month, two editors of the tabloid Umuseso, widely considered Kigali’s closest approximation of an independent paper, disappeared, and are rumored to have fled to Tanzania following government threats.
“There’s a culture in this country of using the media for political ends,” says Kenyan journalist Mary Kimani, who has been working on films in and about Rwanda for five years. “What’s changed is only what those political ends are.
“At least you can say now the ruling elite is not planning massacres,” she says. “But will any real news ever come from these new stations?” She rolls her eyes. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
HIV-researcher Taylor, now a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, is even more skeptical. The Kagame government, he says, is in many ways replicating the political conditions that preceded the genocide. If private radio turns out to be a sham, Taylor says, he fears Rwanda will veer even closer to the sort of repressive climate that enabled the génocidaires to – as RTLM notoriously put it – do their work.
During a blazing-hot break in a week of rain, it seems everyone in Kigali is out on the streets. Guys loafing on stoops hiss at passing girls. Women parade by with great bowls of bananas on their heads. Every fifth person, it seems, is holding a small transistor radio to his ear.
Michel Rwalinda is one of these people. At a watch vendor’s in the city center, he’s listening to the government radio station. He prefers Radio 10, he says, “But people are so used to listening to Radio Rwanda, it will take more than one or two months to break the habit.”
This particular afternoon, Radio 10’s English broadcast is a country-music show. If the number of cabbies blaring “Coward of the County” is any indication, Kigali’s achy-breaky heart already belongs to Kenny Rogers.
Sure enough, someone calls in to request “Coward,” and Ms. Mugema indulges them. It’s not hard to see why the song appeals to postgenocidal Rwanda: “Promise me son not to do the things I’ve done….”