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Opinions of Sunday, 10 July 2011

Columnist: Ablorh, Raymond

Operation Just Change The Dial

knife, in the hands of a physician is a source of relief to the
perishing soul that needs surgery; in the hands of the armed robber,
it’s a pain booster to the vulnerable victim. So, the media that the
Rwandans could employ for problem-preventing and solving education, they
used as killing catalysts in ethnicity motivated genocide. Out
of a population of 7.3 million people – 84% of whom were Hutus, 15%
Tutis and 1% Twa – the official figures published by the Rwandan
government estimated the number of victims of the genocide to be 1,174,
000 in 100 days (10,000 murdered everyday, 400 every hour, 7 every
minute). Another source put the death toll at 800,000, 20%
of whom were Hutus. It’s estimated that 300,000 Tutis survived the
genocide. Thousands of widows, many of whom were subjected to rape, are
now HIV- positive. There were about 400,000 orphans and nearly 85,000 of
them forced to be become heads of families. Certainly,
the first lesson Rwandans practically learned is that the world cannot
be trusted to save them from their suffering, as the former UN Secretary
General, Kofi Annan, candidly admitted of the sad event later in the
year 2000, “the international community failed Rwanda and that must
leave us always with a sense of bitter regret.” With this
sense of bitter regret the entire world moved to assist in the recovery
of poor Rwanda; but, as Ellis Cose wrote in ‘Lessons of Rwanda’
published on the Newsweek website on April 12, 2008, “the important
thing is not how quickly the country is healing but how easily it
descended into madness.” It is in this swiftness to such
heights of madness that growing democracies like Ghana could locate the
lessons soaked in the thick blood of the people of Rwanda. One of the
greatest lessons here to infant democracies is that they ought to
appreciate with insight the responsibilities democratic freedoms;
especially, media freedom, come with before they set their countries
ablaze. The head of the media capacity building project in
Rwanda – ‘Rwanda Initiative’, Prof. Allan Johnson bluntly put it his
way, “…: local media fueled the killings, while the international media
either ignored or seriously misconstrued what was happening.” The local
print media are believed to have started hate speeches against Tutis,
which were further broadcast by radio stations. In a
country where nearly fifty percent of the population could neither read
nor write, radio was a vital form of public communication. Radio appears
also to have been widely trusted in Rwanda, with several surveys in the
1980s showing that the vast majority of the population believed that
‘radio tells the truth’. Television was expensive, and given the hilly
terrain it was almost impossible at that time to receive a clear
terrestrial signal. By contrast radio could reach nearly
90% of the country. During the 1980s, the production of radios was
subsidised by foreign donors and the government. Both sold sets at a
reduced price and gave them away to party administrators, as well as
more widely during elections. Some of these radios could only receive
FM. As captured in Jolyon Mitchell's article,'Remembering
the Rwandan Genocide: Reconsidering the Role of Local and Global Media',
“in 1970 there was about one radio to every 120 people, but by 1990
this had increased to one radio to every 13 people. With this greater
availability, increasingly radio became a focal point for entertainment,
information and discussion in Rwanda.” With the founding of
Radio-tèlèvision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) in July 1993, Rwanda’s
airwaves were filled with a new sound. It soon became
Rwanda’s most popular radio station, and in the months preceding the
genocide, many residents tuned to RTLM in their homes and ‘in offices,
cafes, bars and other public gathering places, even in taxis’. In the
midst of what some saw as a civil war and others an invasion, RTLM
contributed to the development of an increasingly tense public sphere,
which provided a forum for extremist speakers to articulate old
grievances and new anxieties. Given this context it is not
surprising that subsequent journalistic accounts of the Rwandan
genocide pointed to locally produced radio broadcasts as a significant
catalyst for the explosion of violence. Other media
particularly the Hutu extremist newspaper Kangura (‘Wake him up’) were
also blamed, but it was the radio broadcasts of RTLM, and to a lesser
extent Radio Rwanda that were deemed to be particularly culpable. One
Canadian journalist described how ‘Hutus could be seen listening
attentively to every broadcast… They held their cheap radios in one hand
and machetes in the other, ready to start killing once the order had
been given’. Other journalists in the West also
highlighted the part played by RTLM in the genocide. The Washington
Post, for example, as early as April 7, 1994, quoted a RTLM broadcast
that warned Tutsi in Rwanda, ‘You cockroaches must know you are made of
flesh! We won’t let you kill! We will kill you!’’ Associated
Press also on April 25, 1994, quoted a UN spokesman in Kigali claiming
that ‘Radio RTLM is calling on militias to step up the killing of
civilians.’The belief that radio was partly culpable for the
Rwandan tragedy has been reinforced in other contexts. For example, a
short French film Itsembatsemba: Rwanda One Genocide Later (Alexis
Cordesse and Eyal Sivan, 1996) depicts how RTLM began to broadcast with
the assistance of the government and then played a central part in ‘the
unleashing and the coordination’ of the genocide. Recent feature films about the
genocide, such as Hotel Rwanda (2004) also highlight the role of the radio.
the actual role that RTLM played in the Rwandan genocide remains not
only a contested phenomenon, but also a point of judicial inquiry. Yes,
during the 2008 General Elections in Ghana, many a resident stood
frighteningly at a steep edge seeing the power of the media when a
broadcast from Radio Gold got many supporters of the National Democratic
Congress (NDC) surround the station to stop the police from allegedly
effecting some arrest there. And, we all saw how simple broadcast got
thousands of supporters besiege the Electoral Commission head office at
Ridge, Accra. Surely, some people imagined that but for
Radio Gold’s effort, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) would have rigged the
elections; but, nobody could imagine what would have happened if the
visibly pro- NPP radio station, Oman FM, was very active those days and
decided to inspire NPP supporters with an ‘ALL- DIE- BE- DIE’ message.
This is just a food for thought. When I listen to some
stations today, I genuinely get sad and frightened about what could
happened if we don’t learn from the blood soaked lessons from Rwanda
now. We aren’t better human beings than the Rwandans and if what got
them killing themselves happens to us we could do same. We have to take
nothing for granted. Unlike in Rwanda, there are so many
ethnic groups in Ghana and it wouldn’t be easy getting one ethnic group
fighting the other. But, we could fight along political party lines;
and, looking at how we continue to tie political parties to ethnic
groups, political enmity could resurrect old bad tribal feelings. The
consequence is obvious. Again, unlike Rwanda, Ghana has
very broad and diverse media domain which continue to offer audience
many varieties of contents. However, one doesn’t need to conduct an
extensive audience research to know that party supporters even without a
whip know where to get information favourable to their parties from.
Hence, the most predictable place any such violence could start is the
politicians-owned media and from those journalists who are more of
politicians than journalists. This is why the National
Media Commission (NMC), Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) and all well
meaning organizations and individuals ought to deem it expedient and
highly imperative to check the media before they kill us all. It’s no
insult to call the NMC a toothless dog; and the GJA is also being more
protective of the journalist with a solidarity hug and paying very less
attention on ensuring that professional standards are upheld. The
latter’s controversial definition of who a journalist is and
requirements for membership could be looked at again. According to them,
journalists, after their four-year degree programme or two-year diploma
studies must work for two years before they could be members. Such
fresh journalists with purely academic appreciation of media ethics
could be dangerous on the media landscape; so, I suggest the GJA rather
should at least create some category for the fresh out of school
journalist in a membership structure where they could benefit from the
Association’s professional training to equip them with some kind of
relevant ethical decision making and taking techniques to enhance their
work. When I was the SRC Vice president of the Ghana
Institute of Journalism, for instance, I initiated the ‘Journalism
Student Debate’ dubbed ‘Controversies in Media Ethics’ where student
journalists practically could debate latest ethical matters in the
Ghanaian media so that by the time they entered the field they could
without much difficulty appreciate some of the major ethical decisions
they would take daily in and out of the newsroom. I
expected the institute or the SRC to institutionalize that with the very
good reasons it came with. But, perhaps, because it’s more difficult to
convince the students to patronize such an event than do the MISS
COMMUNICATOR or the beach party on the SRC’s calendar, present students
don’t even know that something like that had ever been done in the
school before. I suggest that all journalism schools in
Ghana should find a way of encouraging such intellectual and
professional engagements both internally; and externally, among the
schools as exercises purposefully directed at keeping the beneficiaries
abreast with practical ethical issues on the field even before they get
there. But, again, the ordinary reporter has very limited
power when it comes to newsroom decisions, and this is why the NMC needs
to be strengthened to deliver more effectively and efficiently its
mandate. Meanwhile, till the NMC acquires what it takes to
‘control’ our media; maybe, the audience could do the magic. Please,
don’t go and beat any journalist in a media house because that would
obviously get you into trouble. Moreover, never fight anybody who buys
ink in barrels. For, as it is said, the pen is mightier than the sword.
And, I would add that the mightiest is the microphone. The
way to do it is simple, JUST CHANGE THE DIAL from that station; or,
DON’T BUY THE PAPER which incites people and engages in anti-development
journalism. Their listenership and circulations would obviously drop
speedily over a short time and there never could be an effective
audience control than that. Go on and educate those around
you to avoid nation wrecking and unconstructive media outputs and if we
continue to do that the only people who would be left listening to them
are themselves and perhaps the serial callers. And, which advertiser
would sponsor a programme which has just few serial callers as its
Raymond Ablorh