Kill the Messenger: The Media's Role in the Fate of the World

Kill the Messenger: The Media's Role in the Fate of the World

by Maria Armoudian

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This wide-ranging, insightful book will make readers keenly aware of the media’s power, while underscoring the role that we all play in fostering a media climate that cultivates a greater sense of humanity, cooperation, and fulfillment of human potential.

What role do the media have in creating the conditions for atrocities such as occurred in Rwanda?


This wide-ranging, insightful book will make readers keenly aware of the media’s power, while underscoring the role that we all play in fostering a media climate that cultivates a greater sense of humanity, cooperation, and fulfillment of human potential.

What role do the media have in creating the conditions for atrocities such as occurred in Rwanda? Conversely, can the media be used to preserve democracy and safeguard the human rights of all citizens in a diverse society? How will the media, now global in scope, affect the fate of the planet itself?

The author explores these intriguing questions and more in this in-depth examination of the media’s power to either help or harm. She begins by documenting how the media were used to spread a contagion of hate in three deadly conflicts: Rwanda, Nazi Germany, and the former Yugoslavia. She then turns to areas of the world where the media acted constructively—by aiding the peace process in Northern Ireland, rebuilding democracy in Chile, bridging ethnic divides in South Africa, improving the lot of women in Senegal, and boosting transparency and democratization in Mexico and Taiwan. Finally, she explains how the media interact with psychological and cultural forces to impact perceptions, fears, peer-pressure, "groupthink," and the creation of heroes and villains.

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Prometheus Books
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6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 Maria Armoudian
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-387-9

Chapter One

Hate as a Contagion: Media and the Rwandan Genocide

Jean's brother Michel lay before him, battered, bleeding, and writhing in agony from the bludgeoning he had just endured by members of his ethnic group. Jean stood, machete in hand and gun at his head, confused about the decision he was being forced to make—decapitate his brother or face his own brutal demise. Both Jean and his brother were Hutus, one of three ethnic groups that occupy Rwanda. But his brother was married to a Tutsi woman, the group targeted for annihilation by the Hutu-led Rwandan government in the spring of 1994. When the Rwandan genocide began, Jean and Michel had offered food to Tutsi refugees who were driven from their homes through mass burning and pillaging. As penance for aiding the inyenzi (the Rwandan word for "cockroach"), Rwandan military reservists ordered Jean to behead his brother. He stood frozen, hesitant, distressed: Could he kill his own brother? As he agonized, reservists reminded him that he must either kill or be killed as an accomplice to the Tutsis. In a moment of fear and confusion, Jean thrust the machete into his brother's neck, severing his head from the rest of his body.

A local tavern owner and father of three, Jean was among the less extreme Hutus caught up in the mass-murder sprees and "made" to kill their loved ones. Others like him killed neighbors, family members, and friends under a similar "kill or be killed as an accomplice" threat. So they killed or helped kill to prevent being placed on the government's infamous hit list of recalcitrant Hutus who were also to be hunted down and destroyed. Some Hutus killed one group of Tutsis while simultaneously hiding and protecting others who were dear to them or who offered bribes for shelter. Others anguished over "killing my neighbor; we used to drink together.... He was like a relative." Yet thousands of Hutus were more like Pierre, a father and subsistence-farmer-turned-killer. Pierre and his neighbors came to believe that the Tutsis had killed Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and thus refused to "stand with their arms crossed [doing nothing]." Filled with rage, Pierre and thousands of regular Rwandan Hutus—farmers, teachers, parents, and active churchgoers—sought revenge, going on murderous rampages to eliminate those whom they believed were evil, criminal accomplices out to kill their Hutu brethren. They were on a mission to eradicate an infestation of vermin, infiltrators, and criminals who were coming to take their land and pile their dead bodies into "pits." They killed every Tutsi with whom they had ever been in contact—community members, neighbors, and friends. Children and infants were hacked up mercilessly because "if you kill a rat, you must also kill the rat in gestation; it will grow up to be a rat, like the others." To prolong their pain before death, victims were often physically and mentally tortured. One primary school teacher, Naasson, pounded a young child relentlessly with a hammer before finally killing him. Another, Jean Bosco, crushed an already-battered ten-year-old girl with a stone.

Women were targeted for torture through rape. Told that they must rape the women before slaying them, men often sequentially raped women until their victims collapsed. They raped with farm tools, spears, gun barrels, and machetes, or mutilated their victims' genitals and breasts with acid or boiling water. One group of soldiers held a hatchet to a twelve-year-old boy's throat, forcing him to rape his mother, while his younger siblings were forced to hold her legs open. Some raped to intentionally spread HIV, killing their victims slowly and painfully. In fact, 70 percent of surviving rape victims contracted HIV.

Some mothers killed their own children before others could slay them. Other mothers watched helplessly as mad killers slaughtered their children—one by one or two by two. Children begged and screamed for mercy as they watched their parents and siblings butchered. After witnessing eight of her siblings be bludgeoned to death, one three-year-old child cried out, "Please don't kill me. I'll never be Tutsi again!" But without a second thought, killers clubbed her until her screaming faded to silence.

Ultimately, "everywhere I went, I was a killer," admitted Pierre, who participated in multiple murders. Sometimes he and others used the rampage as a means of seeking revenge upon their Hutu rivals. By falsifying their foes' identities as Tutsis, their fellow Hutus were subjected to the same horrors.

Although some impoverished Hutus participated in the murders for monetary gain or prestige, others were prominent members of society. Doctors, priests, teachers, and school principals all "rolled up their sleeves to get a good grip on their machetes," hacking up their colleagues, students, and patients. "They all killed with their own hands [and] ... they had no trouble sleeping."

Similarly disturbing was the slaying of people who had lived like brothers, such as the teammates on the local soccer team. When the slaughters began, star soccer player Evergiste, a Tutsi, fled to the home of his most trusted friend, a fellow Hutu teammate. To his horror, he found his friend, bloody machete in hand, had already slaughtered two children. At the moment of realization, Evergiste fled—in a full sprint—to the forest, burying himself deep in the vegetation to hide from his pursuers. He recalled passing "the ball back and forth" with those same teammates who now rabidly hunted him. Evergiste sank into the swampy vegetation, listening attentively to angry, taunting voices nearing him.

"Evergiste!" they called out. "We sorted through the piles of bodies; we have not seen your cockroach face!" they yelled. "We are going to sniff you out.... We shall get you!"

For days, Evergiste remained buried in the swamps, rising only in the darkness of night to scrounge for food. As a Tutsi, he lives with the reality that "not one teammate gave a helping hand to another." Another surviving soccer player, Celestin, lamented, "We had lived as brother players" and "parted as enemy brothers." Ultimately, he noted, "Nothing survived the genocide. It cut down soccer with a casual swipe, like all the rest."

Even the most vulnerable populations received no mercy. Hutu killers ripped the gates off of a maternity hospital, hacked up new mothers with machetes, and smashed their nursing infants against walls. Some tossed live infants into heaps of corpses to slowly die of starvation. 11 Others, to prolong the agony, "would call everyone to watch," then hack off their victims' limbs or crush their bones without killing them, leaving them to suffer until death.

Acts of compassion were severely punished. A young woman, Mathilde, spotted a child left for dead after his head had been split with a machete. Day after day, Mathilde returned to his hiding place, delivering food, water, and medicine—until the day her deeds were discovered. In one slash, her husband slit her throat.

After decades of living in relative harmony with each other, Rwandan Hutus from all walks of life rose to annihilate the Tutsis. Using farm tools, knives, acid, or boiling water, they hacked, mutilated, and tortured their fellow Rwandans to their deaths. In search-and-destroy missions, they moved from house to house and scrutinized every crevice to be sure they had not missed someone in hiding. If Tutsis were discovered, the killers dragged them out and publicly clubbed or stabbed them to death. Women pleaded for their lives, sometimes for twenty minutes or more, yet the Hutu killers hacked off their limbs or bludgeoned them to death while other Hutus walked by, going about their business. To ensure they had not missed a hidden Tutsi, "workers" set houses and entire villages ablaze.

In droves, Tutsi families fled for their lives, seeking cover in churches or other public places, only to find these locales had become slaughterhouses, where killers mutilated hundreds at a time, sometimes by cutting off their genitalia to inflict the greatest possible pain.

Roadblocks littered the land, guarded by townspeople who had become bloodthirsty warriors and ensured that no Tutsi escaped death. Mutilated bodies filled church aisles, pews, halls, city streets, and alleyways in the once-idyllic land. Pools of blood "turned black in the heat of the sun." Entire villages became heaps of dead bodies—so many that crews commissioned dump trucks to dispose of them.

In just over three months, the Hutu people had brutally and heinously exterminated three-quarters of Rwanda's Tutsi population. Hutus were also killed—either because they resembled the Tutsis, had helped a Tutsi escape, or because they had refused to kill. Most violators were ordinary people who had not committed violence in the past. Yet they were remorseless in the killings, believing that they were doing an important job by avenging the death of their president, defending themselves from what they believed was an oncoming slaughter, and exterminating the "cockroaches" that were causing all their political and economic troubles.

What converted the Hutu people from good neighbors to savage murderers in such a short period of time? Although there had been periods of ethnic rivalries among extremists, most Tutsis and Hutus had lived side by side, intermarried, and attended the same schools and churches. Historically, they had banded together to fight common enemies. And for centuries, they shared stories, lives, food, drink, and beds. Differences between them were minimal. Physically, one could hardly distinguish their respective traits, and they shared racial backgrounds, languages, customs, traditions, and territories. Most Rwandans had little ill will toward their own neighbors, teammates, fellow churchgoers, and friends. But in a matter of weeks, Hutus from all walks of life rose to destroy their neighboring Tutsis. How can we explain this?


Although some observers attribute the Rwandan genocide to "ancient tribalism," that depiction is too simplistic to be accurate. For centuries, Hutus and Tutsis lived together in Central Africa, the region now divided into Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. Substantive divisions between them arose during the late 1800s with European colonization. Belgian settlers devised a scheme to separate and distinguish the tribes from each other based on minor physical differences—Tutsis were somewhat taller, more slender, and had smaller noses. The distinctions were so slight that colonists instituted an identification system, requiring Rwandans to maintain papers so as not to confuse the groups.

Throughout the first few decades of colonization, the Belgians bestowed benefits onto the Tutsis—offering them better education, power, and prestigious social and political positions—in essence, making the Tutsis an upper class and the Hutus a lower class. However, in the 1950s, when Tutsis agitated for independence, Belgians shifted loyalties, slowly replacing the Tutsi chiefs with Hutus, who were the majority group. Hutu leaders seized the opportunity and, in a turbulent "revolution," they conquered the Tutsi rulers and took power. In the process, they killed an estimated one hundred thousand Tutsis and left several hundred thousand refugees. The refugees fled to neighboring countries, such as Uganda, Burundi, and Zaire; but having lost their homes and with limited civil rights in their new host countries, they lived with a deep sense of discomfort and injustice. By 1961, the Belgian colonization ended, but a new, oppressive Hutu regime had begun.

In 1973, defense minister Major General Juvénal Habyarimana deposed the sitting president and seized power in a coup, which killed some fifty-five people by poison or beatings. Although President Habyarimana ended targeted ethnic violence, his administration still oppressed, jailed, and sometimes executed political opponents.

Through a tightly knit network of family and allies, Habyarimana maintained power for more than twenty years. Rwandans facing oppression fled, swelling the number of exiles and refugees in neighboring countries to nearly six hundred thousand by the 1980s. But other countries, particularly Uganda, persecuted Rwandan refugees. In Uganda, one group of exiles formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) with a stated mission of ousting Habyarimana and establishing a more democratic government in Rwanda. On October 1, 1990, the RPF crossed into Rwanda and shot and killed the customs guards at their entry point.

Rumors circulated throughout the nation about RPF attacks; Habyarimana rallied support for his regime and jailed political rivals. With the assistance of foreign troops from France and Zaire, the Rwandan military pushed the RPF back toward the Ugandan border. In the process, they summarily killed between five hundred thousand and one million unarmed people, mostly for suspicion of aiding the RPF.

Violence erupted throughout the land. Bombs were detonated on buses, and land mines exploded in roads; unidentified assailants attacked people, led death squads, raped, pillaged, murdered, and threw grenades into homes. Although the government blamed the RPF for the violence, human rights groups assert that the Habyarimana government, the national police, and the Rwandan military perpetrated many of the attacks. While opposition political leaders and extremists attacked each other and members of the other ethnic group, civilians from both groups continued living without overt animosity toward each other. "We shared everything [among Tutsis and Hutus]," said one farmer-turned-killer. But suspicions were growing.

In 1992, at the urging of the Organization of African Unity and France, the Rwandan government and the RPF ceased fire and entered peace negotiations. On August 3, 1993, they signed the Arusha Accords, agreeing to establish rule of law, share power, and repatriate refugees. But eight months later, assailants shot down the plane carrying President Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira, killing both leaders.


When you have been prepared the right way by the radios and the official advice, you obey more easily, even if the order is to kill your neighbors. —Pancrace, one of the Hutu killers

In one hand, they held their weapon of choice—a machete, a club, or a hatchet—in the other, a radio, most often tuned to Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM), the privately run station that aired hip, popular music; vital political information; lively on-air hosts; and messages of mass murder. Financed and controlled by what were known as the Akazu faction (and Hutu Power) of the Habyarimana government, the RTLM launched its broadcast programs just after the Arusha peace treaty was signed. Led by a young intellectual and university professor, Ferdinand Nahimana, the radio station was designed to be the "voice of the people," luring listeners with exciting content, entertainment, breaking news, call-in requests, gossip, and quick wit. It fast became the most popular station in Rwanda. But nestled between Rwandans' favorite songs and off-color jokes was an intense campaign designed to evoke passion, pride, hatred, and dedication for a murderous cause and to convert the annihilation of others into a noble act.

How was this cause constructed? Broadcasters weaved together a passionate tale of good versus evil, in which the unmistakably evil forces—the RPF and its fellow Tutsi accomplices—were actively destroying all that was good. They were enemies of democracy, justice, the Hutu people, and, ultimately, Rwanda itself. The radio hosts bolstered the story line with tales of horror that repeatedly depicted the antagonist Tutsis as irreconcilably evil. In one tale, the Tutsis from the RPF had allegedly tortured, castrated, and murdered the Burundian president alongside countless other victims. In another, Tutsis had reportedly cut innocent Hutu people "into pieces with a machete [and] terrorized the population and the authorities."


Excerpted from KILL THE MESSENGER by MARIA ARMOUDIAN Copyright © 2011 by Maria Armoudian. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Maria Armoudian (Los Angeles, CA) is the host and producer of a radio show called "The Insighters" on KPFK and WPRR. She is a fellow of the Center for International Studies and a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California.

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