In June 1993, a new radio station called Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLMC) began broadcasting in Rwanda.
The station was unprofessional in its activities and used street language. There were disc jockeys, pop music and phone-ins. Sometimes the announcers went on air while they are intoxicated. It was designed to appeal to the unemployed, delinquents, gangs of thugs and militia.
RTLM was set up and financed by hard-line Hutu extremists, mostly from northern Rwanda: Wealthy businessmen, Cabinet ministers and relatives of a former president. Its backers also included the directors of two African banks and the vice-president of the Interahamwe.
Its stated aim was “to create harmonious development in Rwandan society,” but nothing could have been further from the truth. The radio dedicated almost all its airtime to encouraging hate and violence, fueling the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi.
Last week, "Hate Radio," a play based on a true story of how RTLM fueled the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi premiered in Kigali. The play showed how microphones are dangerous and can kill. And, perhaps more importantly, it reminded us of the powerful influence of mass media.
Twenty-nine years later, radio is still king in Rwandan media, as it remains a channel through which many ordinary Rwandans access information. But, while there are more than 50 private radio stations operating across the country, the content remains weak, as airwaves are still dominated by fluff stuff, including showbiz and celebrity gossip.
It is apparent that the majority of radio stations have prioritised entertaining and almost forgotten about the other key responsibilities of the media — educating and informing the public.
We still lack critical, insightful content that can help Rwandans make informed decisions about their lives. There’s a proliferation of online media outlets that operate without any editorial policy or professional journalists. Some engage in propagating misinformation, and now they are actively engaging in genocide denial.
Therefore, 29 years later, the challenge facing all content producers is not just avoiding engaging in hate speech but also providing compelling content that positively impacts society.
We need content producers to put a spotlight on critical developments that negatively and positively impact people’s lives, as well as bring to the fore issues that are often ignored and voices that are marginalized.
More importantly, given the expanding significant role of social media in shaping public attitudes and opinions, society needs a well-informed citizenry that cannot be easily manipulated by misinformation and fake news.
Radio is powerful and brings positive change if professionally run, or it can lead to calamity.