Global Policy Forum

Trial Centers on Role of Press

Print

By Marlise Simons

New York Times
March 3, 2002

A trial is unfolding far from the spotlight in this East African town, but its outcome may one day ring out around the world. It is the trial of three journalists that focuses on the question, can freedom of speech degenerate into genocide? Or put differently, can journalism kill?


According to prosecutors of the United Nations war crimes tribunal for Rwanda, the answer to both questions is a forceful yes. The three men in the dock, all former Rwandan news media executives, stand accused of genocide and incitement to genocide through their use of radio broadcasts and newspapers.

Their trial is also examining the full scope of the role played by the news media in the massacre of more than 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994. It is the first time since Julius Streicher, the Nazi publisher of the anti-Semitic weekly Der Stürmer, appeared before the Nuremberg judges in 1946 that a group of journalists stands accused before an international tribunal on such grave charges.

Prosecutors have drawn stark parallels between the vitriolic campaigns against the Jews by Der Stürmer before World War II and the actions of some Rwandan media organizations before and during the 1994 slaughter of the Tutsi. At Nuremberg, the charge of genocide did not yet exist.

Legal specialists believe that the outcome of the current trial may set a crucial precedent for future international cases, in particular for the permanent International Criminal Court, which is expected to open later this year to handle accusations of grave rights violations.

"A key question will be what kind of speech is protected and where the limits lie," said Stephen Rapp, an American lawyer, who is the senior prosecutor in the case. "It is important to draw that line. We hope the judgment will give the world some guidance."

National laws inevitably vary, and as for international legal standards, "there has been no decision since Nuremberg," Mr. Rapp said. The Allies' military court at Nuremberg, which sent Julius Streicher to the gallows, may seem far away and the Rwanda tribunal has no death sentence. But questions about the effects of hateful propaganda and whether journalists should exercise self-restraint or even self-censorship in dangerous moments are topical.

"This is very much a living issue," said a judge at the Rwanda tribunal. "People have found Osama bin Laden's hate talk against Americans objectionable. So why did some American media use self-restraint or even self-censorship in his case? Clearly because there were larger values involved."

The accused in what is informally called here "the media trial" are Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean- Bosco Barayagwiza, who the prosecutors say founded and controlled a Rwandan radio station and directed its news coverage, and Hassan Ngeze, a former newspaper publisher and editor. Prosecutors charge that all three were part of a well- prepared plan to use their outlets first to spread ethnic hatred and then to persuade people to kill their enemies, the Tutsi and moderate Hutu. That required demonizing the Tutsi, prosecutors said, and the media played a key role in accomplishing this.

To make their case, prosecutors have armed themselves with some 50,000 documents, more than 600 audiotapes of what they say are inflammatory broadcasts from Radio Mille Collines and stacks of copies from the pictorial newspaper Kangura, peppered with vicious cartoons and nasty texts.

The radio, nicknamed Radio Hate, was the mouthpiece of the extremist Hutu Power movement. At first, it addressed its Tutsi opponents with warnings like "You cockroaches must know you are made of flesh. We won't let you kill, we will kill you." But once the massacres had begun, the prosecution said, the broadcasts goaded Hutu militia groups to "go to work" and kept inciting people with messages like "the graves are not yet full."

Defense lawyers have rejected the genocide charges and the defendants have pleaded not guilty. John Floyd, an American lawyer defending Mr. Ngeze, denounced the indictments as a "vulgar farce" and "dangerous stuff."

"What's really on trial here is freedom of the press and intellectual freedom," he said. "These people should never have been indicted. They've already been locked up for five years. Just with these indictments, the U.N. is already defending press censorship."

Other lawyers have been more circumspect, among them Jean-Marie Biju-Duval, the French defense counsel for Mr. Nahimana. In his view, the central question of the trial is, "At what point, if any, does political propaganda become criminal?"

That issue, however it is defined, may soon also apply to songs. Simon Bikindi, a well known Rwandan singer, has been indicted by the tribunal on charges of genocide. Arrested in the Netherlands, where he was living, Mr. Bikindi is about to be transferred to Arusha. According to his indictment, Mr. Bikindi composed songs that helped foment fear and hatred of the Tutsi. He is also charged with joining militia gangs on their killing sprees.

The media trial, one of the tribunal's high profile cases, has been going on since October 2000, plagued, as other cases here, by management problems. Its prosecutors have changed several times and it may still be months from completion. Some 40 witnesses have already been heard. Complicating matters, two of the defendants opened their own Web sites, and they are reported to have leaked some confidential court data. One defendant, Mr. Barayagwiza, a former government information official, is refusing to show up in court, although his two court-appointed lawyers are attending. He became outraged because other judges had ordered his release, ruling that the prosecution had violated his rights. But after a public outcry in Rwanda and an appeal by the prosecution, that ruling was reversed. He said he would not bother to attend a trial in a court that was politicized and biased.

Prosecutors argue that their case is not about freedom or excess of the press, but about a criminal conspiracy. They say Radio Mille Collines and the newspaper Kangura were as much part of the well-prepared plan to kill Tutsi as was the creation of extremist militias and the importation and distribution of machetes well before the killing began. In Rwanda, a nation of few televisions, radio has enormous power, the prosecutors say.

Witnesses told the court that once the slaughter had begun - it lasted about 100 days - Radio Mille Collines was vital in steering the militia and calling direct hits. They said the station would broadcast the names and addresses of people who were targets along with their vehicle license plates and the hiding places of refugees.

"There was an FM radio on every roadblock, there were thousands of roadblocks in Rwanda," a police investigator said. He told the court that in prison interviews "many people told us they had killed because the radio had told them to kill."

Mr. Rapp, the American prosecutor, said that even in the United States, with its fierce protection of freedom of speech, "if you ordered a hit, using the media, that would not be protected." He drew the analogy of a newspaper that became part of a stock fraud. In such a case, he said, "the issue is not freedom of expression but the crime of fraud." But Mr. Floyd, the American defense lawyer, insisted that "this media trial" was the "most dangerous trial I have ever been in because it may give comfort to despots in the future."

The three judges trying the case, led by Navanethem Pillay of South Africa, will be looking at how hate speech is dealt with in various nations, like the United States, Germany, France and South Africa, "because there is very little precedent in the international field," according to a legal researcher.

The panel is likely to study the Streicher judgment at Nuremberg, the researcher said, but also cases like the United States Supreme Court decision allowing a Nazi group to march through a Jewish neighborhood. An unusual case on the books involves a journalist in France. After World War II, the main announcer of Radio Paris, Jean Herold Paquis, was tried for committing treason with his pro-German broadcasts during the Nazi occupation. He was given the death sentence.


More Information on International Justice

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C íŸ 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


 

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C ß 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.