It was April 7, 1994 in Rwanda, 20 years ago today. After decades of inter-marrying and living in relative harmony, Rwandan Hutus rose en masse and began mutilating, raping, torturing and murdering their Tutsi neighbours, using clubs, machetes, acid, boiling water and the deliberate spread of Aids. By the end of just three months, the Hutu people had brutally exterminated three-quarters of the Tutsi population - an estimated 800,000 men, women and children.
But the perpetrators were not hardened criminals, nor did they have violent histories. Rather, they were ordinary people - farmers, active churchgoers, and teachers. Yet they were remorseless in the killings, believing that they were doing an important job by exterminating people they called "cockroaches", who they blamed for all of the troubles in their homeland.
The Rwandan Genocide was, of course, one of many wholesale massacres of the 20th century, an era some scholars call the "mass murder" century, during which more than 50 million people, or 100 million by some counts, were systematically killed by both soldiers and civilian combat.
Why did it happen? Although several factors converged to galvanise the Hutu people to commit the atrocities, among the more important was a powerful, privately-owned mass media, repeating messages of hate, fear and dehumanisation - and human psychology responding to situational conditions. Certainly, the Rwandan Genocide was not the only time when mass media were used in the aiding of mass human rights abuses. The architects of every modern genocide and mass atrocity used media to justify their ends and usually to disguise or cover up their means.
But the Rwandan Genocide gave us a unique window to understand the relationship between media, human psychology and mass atrocities. It is among the best examples of the worst case scenarios that can arise when extremists control media. Because nearly all media in the country, save for the extremist-controlled RTLM, had been muted, the Hutu extremists had a near monopoly on information and framing of the news and commentary.
To persuade and organise everyday Hutus to commit genocide against the Tutsis, Rwandan extremists broadcast emotional, "us-versus-them," "patriotic" and "noble" lies: They must kill the Tutsi in order to establish a majoritarian democracy, to aide development, to emancipate the "victimised" Hutu race, and to end Tutsi domination. Tutsis, they claimed, were rising to "once again" destroy the Hutus, and must be killed before they kill "us".
Broadcasters belittled those refusing to "work" for the cause, explained proper use of weapons, and took call-in tips to help killers in their audience locate Tutsis in hiding. In short order, former friends, husbands, wives, schoolmates, students, patients and teammates had become the enemy, an evil to be eradicated through torture, rape, severing limbs - excruciating deaths.
Watch: Rwanda Genocide: 20 years on
Suppose we try a counterfactual thought experiment: If Rwanda had featured a responsible, ethical media outlet to counter the lies and propaganda of the RTLM, could human lives have been saved? Would the mob behaviour in which people lose their individual autonomy have been tempered? Perhaps the question can be partially answered by looking next door to Rwanda's neighbour, Burundi.
Sometimes called Rwanda's twin, Burundi had also become mired in Tutsi/Hutu internecine violence. Rather than a monolithic RTLM-controlled media, Burundi featured a polarised media, which had been fuelling the conflict. But with the help of international NGOs, independent radio emerged, featuring programmes that would dispel rumour-mongering and extremist labels and humanise the factions.
Instead of merely repeating polarising "he-said-she-said" narratives, journalists asked questions that sought to understand the roots of the conflict. And rather than focus on the aggression and blame that further divided the communities, journalists found the lens of shared humanity. The "traitors" who had been marked for death by their own communities for rescuing one of the "others" began to morph into "heroes". And so reconciliation could begin.
At its best, the nature of ethical journalism counters extremism by giving true accounting of reality, complete with rich contexts that help us understand one another and our political situations. From there it is up to humanity to make its next choice.
Maria Armoudian, PhD, is a lecturer in media politics and civil rights and the author of Kill the Messenger: The Media's Role in the Fate of the World.