Media Manipulation, Suppression and the Rwandan Genocide (March)

In March 2020, the Rights Writers were asked what role has the media played in covering the topic and what effects, positive and negative, has the media had on their topic, and what role ought the media to play.

It is impossible to tell the story of Rwanda’s genocide and of the government built afterwards without telling also, at least in part, the story of Rwanda’s media. And that story highlights both

Source: Flickr

In the early 90s, few Rwandans had televisions in their homes or regularly engaged with print media – instead, radio was the medium of choice, much as social media is a primary news for many people in the developing world today. Because it was often the only readily accessible information source, and because there were a limited number of channels, radio was quickly corrupted by the Hutu Power movement to circulate disinformation and calls to action. One channel in particular, RTLM – which spread anti-Tutsi conspiracy theories and conditioning its listeners to see Tutsi as sub-human and deserving of violence – is considered by many Rwandans, contemporary historians, and the United Nations, to have been a key instigator of the genocide. This is not an isolated case –  just recently, the New York Times found hateful rhetoric promulgated by social media bots to be a driver of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.

However, media was also critical in alerting the world to what was occurring in Rwanda, even before the situation had attracted the attention of individual governments. In this sense, the (albeit limited) international intervention that occurred can be traced back to brave reporting. Furthermore, particularly in the 21st Century, media can draw the attention of individual citizens, mobilizing not only politicians to act, but corporations to donate and individuals to volunteer. It is also self-replicating. Good reporting on a crisis creates public interest, public interest then inclines more outlets to report. Good reporting from many sources and even social media can also allow open-source analysts to piece together a comprehensive picture of what it occurring.

In Rwanda, media was very valuable not only as the genocide was occurring but also ex post, when it allowed Rwandans to discover what might have happened to family members, friends, or acquaintances, enabled the prosecutions of many perpetrators, and created a corpus that scholars could refer back to determine how such a thing had happened and how it might be prevented from recurring either in Rwanda or elsewhere in the world.

Press pack at RPF rally in Gicumbi, Rwanda. Source: Flickr

Unfortunately, the regime that came to power after the genocide, led by Paul Kagame, has heavy-handedly suppressed media. In Rwanda, this has seemingly worked out for the better. The regime, while somewhat autocratic, generally looks out for the best interests of its citizens, thus an independent media and the informed citizenry it creates has not truly been needed to keep the regime in check. In this sense, however, Rwanda is an outlier. In most cases, those regimes that most harshly suppress media also most often perpetrate other unexposed abuses against their people. In the wake of a civil war or ethnically- or religiously-driven violence, however, media can also be deeply destabilizing. Even if reporting is accurate and robust, it can lead populations to rise up against their fragile government, and with nothing to replace said government, the situation can easily devolve back into violence and destruction. To this end, short term limits on media could potentially be beneficial even if media becomes a necessary check once the situation has stabilized some. Allowing media to proliferate without check can increase the likelihood that disinformation circulates; however, restrictions on media can allow a government to circulate its own disinformation. Given that governments often have a hand in stoking ethnic or religious tensions or xenophobia, it is not obvious that state-run disinformation is any less damaging. Furthermore, disinformation is least effective in those societies that have the most open media market, where an alternative narrative is always presented, fact-checking is available, and the population is media literate.

In nearly all senses, media has a key role in shaping post-conflict governance, both directly and indirectly, and, in nearly all senses, free media is a double-edged sword with profound implications for human rights. When it comes to managing media as a fragile post-conflict government, there are no easy answers. But a few general guidelines are most likely to produce a positive result:

  • Short-term media restrictions may be acceptable, but only if they are intended to keep the peace and lifted as soon as possible.
  • Reporting on the conflict that resulted in the formation of the post-conflict government should never be suppressed.
  • A diversification of media viewpoints and ownership should be encouraged, alongside popular media literacy.

Lebanon: Saved then Ruined by Sectarian Power-Sharing (February)

In February, 2020 the Rights Writers were asked to discuss how a topic has evolved throughout the past decade (2010-now) and look at the issues that have changed significantly during this time period and how these recent changes have affected current approaches to this topic from governmental and non-governmental actors.

By tongeron91 “la Révolution du 17 octobre au Liban, vue du 27 octobre à Jal El Dib, près de Beyrouth (lebanese revolution, a young protester, near beirut)” https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
By tongeron91 “la Révolution du 17 octobre au Liban, vue du 27 octobre à Jal El Dib, près de Beyrouth (lebanese revolution, a young protester, near beirut)” https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

As protests in Lebanon rage, post-conflict governance has achieved new salience, as both a constant subtext for current events and an outstanding question continuing to demand resolution. In the Middle East in particular, the past decade has exposed failures of governance through the Arab Spring and necessitated the imposition of new systems of governance (which, in turn, have also failed). Furthermore, ongoing conflicts have assumed a sectarian tone, refreshing the question of how to manage ethnic and religious difference in government.

The Lebanese civil war was born of weak governance and surging sectarian militias, exacerbating existing tensions between Maronite Christian and Muslim communities. Communal violence escalated resulting in an outright civil war that lasted from 1975-1990.

Following the end of the civil war, the Lebanese government was designed on a model of explicit power sharing between religious groups pursuant to the UN-brokered Taif Agreement. Pursuant to accepted norms, the nation’s President must be a Maronite Christian, while the Prime Minister must be Sunni, and the Speaker of the Parliament must be Shia. Furthermore, a preassigned number of seats in the Parliament are assigned to each of 18 different religious groups and sects. Political parties have then been designed around sect. While Lebanon is more religiously diverse than other Middle Eastern nations, and has a significantly larger Christian population, Sunni-Shia sectarian divides in almost exclusively Muslim nations have been just as politically salient, and similar models of explicit power sharing have been attempted across the Middle East. The Lebanese case is particularly apt for exposing both the benefits and hindrances associated with such a system, however, because of its longevity.

On the most basic level, this ‘confessionalism’ model has served Lebanon well – it has kept the peace. However, it has also had profoundly deleterious effects on human rights and economic well-being that protestors are currently exposing.

The first such effect is that political participation in Lebanon has been heavily premised on religion and patronage systems. Because of vote allocation by religious group, political candidates campaign almost exclusively to coreligionists. While they may tap into issues of concern for Lebanese people more generally, they often argue that they and they alone will be able to secure an advantage or a ‘fair share’ for members of their group. Voters typically select parliamentary candidates only among the narrow pool affiliated with their sect. This not only limits voter choice, it also creates patronage systems dominated by powerful families and keeps sectarian tension ever-present in the political discourse. These patronage systems are resistant to change, resulting in the systematic exclusion of women and LGBTQ individuals from political power. They encourage overt corruption, meaning that government programs catered to safeguarding vulnerable populations fail to do so and their budgets are instead used to line the pockets of the powerful.

A primary criticism of governance involving explicit power sharing is that it casts all politics in an ethnic or religious light and continually surfaces associated adversarialism. This is a precarious situation for human rights – it can easily result in relapses to mass violence or constant low-level discrimination and disenfranchisement. It incentivizes parties to the political system to seek advantage over one another instead of working in the popular interest. In a system of explicit power sharing, there are no unity candidates.

The Lebanese experience has generally validated this criticism. There have been semi-regular waves of anti-government protest in the past decade, and the narrative of various protest groups has generally been that things would be better if their respective sect had a greater share of the power. Protestors brandished the flags of their sect-based political parties rather than the Lebanese flag. However, in the protests that began in fall of 2019 and continue at present, protestors have instead rallied around the message that they are all Lebanese and suffering under the same inept government. This is a sudden shift from prior years, but may represent a mounting and incurable frustration with the status quo.

By Hans van Reenen “Beirut” https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
By Hans van Reenen “Beirut” https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

In a sense, the same protests that have redeemed the Lebanese government (and the power-sharing system it represents) have also damned it. The Lebanese government as currently structured seems to have cured sectarianism; Lebanese of all stripes are working together to demand better. However, the counterfactual is impossible, and perhaps the Lebanese population has evolved past sectarianism despite its system of government rather than because of it.

The protestors were mobilized by massive government failure to spend money efficiently, furnish adequate social services, and protect its population against environmental degradation. While these are not overt violations of human rights, a government’s failure to safeguard the human rights of its citizens against economic forces out of graft and sheer incompetence is itself a violation. Unfortunately, this failure is itself a product of the system. Sectarian infighting distracts Lebanon’s leaders from the more important task of governing. The need to prop up patronage systems built on sect requires routine abuse of government funds. And even absent ill-intent or graft, the system is legally so cumbersome (so as to safeguard each minority from every other) that it impedes basic functioning.

While Lebanon’s system is certainly better than civil war, and might provide a short-termist solution to ethnic and sectarian fighting worldwide, it cannot adequately serve the needs of a population in the long term. Once a nation’s citizens are will to set aside ethnicity or sect, their government should allow them to, and the usual protections of liberal democracy should take the place of explicit power-sharing.

Avoiding Avoidable Tragedy: Public Opinion and R2P (January)

In January, 2020 the Rights Writers were asked to discuss an issue in the context of US political discourse (including public opinion, if desired) – is any relevant legislation being debated? How are different branches of US government engaged with your topic? Consider particularly the 2020 presidential race.

In 2005, the international community coalesced around a new construct – the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). United Nations member states unanimously committed to understand sovereignty as a positive responsibility, requiring that each nation protect its people and all nations shoulder a burden to protect one another’s populations in the event that a government is unwilling or unable to do so. R2P was the international community’s response to a decade littered with atrocities carried out by states against their own populations or atrocities failed states failed to prevent.

Photo from a Trump Rally
Source: Tabitha Kaylee Hawk on Flickr

However, the R2P construct suffers from the central flaw that has plagued almost every product of an international institution – it requires state buy-in for implementation. A new theoretical framework cannot intervene to halt a genocide. A state can. Whether a state does is question of political will. And in the United States, political will is a question of public opinion. The decision to commit military force in particular can never be fully divorced from public opinion (nor, arguably, should it be).

Unfortunately, in the past decade, public opinion has fully soured on humanitarian intervention. Several countervailing trends have eroded support for even the most legitimate military action among the American public.

Support for isolationism has surged, as Americans increasingly believe the best way to keep the United States safe and provide for the American public is to withdraw from the world. A 2019 Gallup poll indicated that 30% of Americans prefer the US to reject foreign entanglements, whether diplomatic or military. Naturally, isolationism is at odds with humanitarian intervention.

Isolationism is often a product of a particular brand of intense realism, which dictates that the United States should only act abroad in furtherance of its self-interest. A Pew poll conducted in 2013 has found a reduced receptiveness to moral arguments in favor of particular foreign policy decisions. While 83% of Americans believed protecting the jobs of American workers to be an important foreign policy goal, and 77% rated reducing dependence on foreign oil to be the same, only 28% of Americans said protecting human rights in other countries should be given the same importance. Whereas realism sets priorities, isolationism purports to dictate a way of manifesting them. Realism is not intrinsically incompatible with humanitarian intervention, which may not always be costly, and may improve the reputation or geopolitical standing of the United States. However, isolationists assume intervention will backfire regardless.

US Air Force soldiers on a runway
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A different segment of the population is convinced that when the United States does take action abroad, it is and will always be in the furtherance of American interest, to the detriment of others. This belief is likely a product both of the fact that all nations often act out of self-interest and the groundswell of realist and isolationist rhetoric à la ‘America first.’ It also often dictates that the United States ‘stay out of it’ insofar as the American interest is perceived to run contrary to the interests of foreign publics.

A final line of thought concludes that some tasks – such as humanitarian intervention – are unachievably difficult. Even should the United States commit forces with the genuine intention of saving civilians from genocide, bad outcomes are inevitable. Thus, it is better not to try to begin with.

In light of these trends it is highly unlikely that Operation Allied Force – the American-led 78-day bombing campaign intended to force Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to end his genocide of Albanian Kosovars – could have happened in 2020. Avoidable tragedy would not have been avoided on account of public opinion.

Even in 1999, securing support for the mission was not easy. The Clinton Administration was convinced only by having witnessed the consequences of its failure to act in Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1995. Congress was lobbied intensely by Albanian Americans, who had spent years building relationships with their representatives. The United Nations Security Council refused to endorse the intervention – as Russia decried United States action against a fellow Slavic state and China assumed a pro-sovereignty stance without exception – rendering any military action illegal. (Though, ultimately, the US secured the support of its NATO allies.) Public opinion on the merits of intervention was divided, as warring columns debated the case on the front pages of leading newspapers.

However, intervention indisputably changed the situation for the better, saving hundreds of thousands of civilians, even as over a million Albanian Kosovars were forced to flee. With the help of the United States, the killing was brought to a halt and Kosovo was established as autonomous and ultimately independent. While the conventional thinking implies that answers cannot or should not be externally imposed, Kosovo proves that such reasoning is flawed, at least in some cases.

For the 2020 presidential candidates, discussion of humanitarian intervention or even America’s role in the world writ large is an unpopular topic. Unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been as or more unpopular among Democrats as among Republicans. And while the election of a Democratic candidate might bring greater buy-in to international institutions and greater investment in development aid, it seems unlikely to a trigger a reevaluation of the American public’s stance on humanitarian intervention. Instead, it is left to the American public to reevaluate and elect leaders who might once again lend credence to the Responsibility to Rrotect.

Case Studies in Post-Conflict Governance (December)

In December 2019, the Rights Writers introduced themselves and their general topic – who are the key actors, what are their goals/incentives, and what are the main debates? (How does the topic relate to human rights specifically?)

Several years ago, I had a conversation with a young woman from a small town outside Kigali, Rwanda. A couple of years older than me, she was born in a place devastated by genocide, only three years after the violence had ceased. Yet her recollections of her childhood were placid and her perceptions of her country rosy.

She was never told whether her family was Hutu or Tutsi, whether they had been perpetrators or victims of genocide (though as in many intra-state conflicts, these were not sharp delineations in Rwanda). Her experience was not unique; none of her classmates had been told either. And her experience was not arbitrary; instead, it represented a collective reckoning that if knowledge of ethnicity could bring so much tragedy, it was better forgotten by the generations that followed.

Source: https://live.staticflickr.com/8342/8219706414_165c84dc4a_3k.jpg

Rwanda now has the highest percentage of women’s representation in governance in the world. Kigali is a hub for investment in Africa. The nation has recovered. Certainly, the journey was not without difficulties. From politicians who tried to stir up pre-existing ethnic hatred to ex-combatants who could not overcome the trauma, Rwanda struggled. And to this day, its President rules autocratically and criticism of the government is sharply curtailed. But, as compared to other cases, post-conflict governance in Rwanda has been incredibly successful.

Rwanda is in many ways a unique case: the scale and brutality of the violence was unprecedented, and the ethnic divisions which guided it were constructs of colonialism not cultural difference.  But Rwanda can provide significant insights into how to manage post-conflict governance.

A post-conflict government, as the bulwark against renewed conflict and the guarantor of individual and collective rights, has profound implications for human rights. A successful model will respect and protect the human rights of all parties, irrespective of their religion or ethnicity. Unfortunately, such a government is hard to design. And even governments which succeed by this metric might fail by another.

Source: https://live.staticflickr.com/1741/28540395868_c6c18024b2_k.jpg

Governance in the wake of a sectarian or ethnic conflict, whether civil war or genocide, faces a stiff mandate. To be successful, the system of government must be sufficiently stable to withstand pressure from any one group, sufficiently equitable to avoid entrenching ethnic or sectarian disparities, and sufficiently effective to retain power and provide crucial social services.

This often requires striking a series of precarious balances. On the one hand, the government must have enough veto points to prevent tyranny of the majority. On the other hand, the government must be able to make legislative and administrative decisions quickly enough to govern effectively. On the one hand, each ethnicity or sect must be represented in the government. On the other hand, the government cannot be run through ethnic or sectarian systems of patronage. On the one hand, the government must be sufficiently powerful to enforce the post-conflict settlement. On the other hand, the government cannot be so powerful that it can itself act in violation of the post-conflict settlement.

Discussion of protecting human rights in conflict is widespread – as it well should be. But the question of how to protect human rights when conflict is over but underlying divisions and tensions continue is underexplored.

This blog series will explore post-conflict reconstruction and models of ethnic and sectarian power sharing though three case studies, each emblematic of a different model:

  1. Rwanda following the Rwandan genocide and the military victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front in 1994. Rwanda represents a model of deliberate erasure of ethnic distinctions.
  2. Lebanon following the Taif Agreement which ended the Lebanese Civil War in 1989. Lebanon represents a model of explicit power sharing — a system referred to as confessionalism.
  3. Kosovo following the end of the Kosovo War and UN Security Council Resolution 1244. Kosovo represents a model of secession and eventual independence.


While each of these case studies is emblematic of a model, they are by no means the only examples. I selected these case studies in particular both because enough time has elapsed since these governing structure were established to allow us to draw conclusions concerning long-term stability and success (or lack thereof) and because I am personally familiar with them.

In the context of each case study, I will also explore a secondary issue. With regards to Kosovo, the role of the United States as an external actor, in terms of both domestic political will for intervention and ramifications of peace-imposition by an external actor. With regards to Lebanon, recent developments in anti-government protests and what they symbolize. And with regards to Rwanda, the role of the media throughout the nation’s modern history, as a driving force of genocide, the instrument of its exposition, and a threat to the present regime.

In my final post, I will offer thoughts on broader lessons learned, generalizability, and room for innovation and improvement.