BOB GARFIELD: In the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the media played a critical role in stoking the violence that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. To prevent further conflict, the Rwandan government has placed restrictions on the nation's private media.
A proposed press law would legally enforce a journalistic code of ethics and require reporters to be licensed. It would make it a crime to use language that would seem to divide the country between Hutus and Tutsis.
Enrique Armijo, a media law attorney based in Washington, was part of a team that went to Rwanda to make recommendations on the new law. He said lawmakers there saw no problem with licensing journalists.
ENRIQUE ARMIJO: His response to me was, well, you're a lawyer. You need a license. A doctor needs a license. And our kind of stock response to that is that I need a license as a lawyer because if I mess up, someone can go to jail, or if I'm a doctor, if I mess up, someone can die. And the official's response to that was basically – and?
They all started off basically with the phrase, ‘the media destroyed this country.’ Journalists associated with the radio station RTLM broadcast license plates of cars that were carrying Tutsis and moderate Hutus so the genociders could set up roadblocks, intercept them, basically facilitating the genocide of more than 800,000 Rwandans.
The newspaper Kangura published what it called "The Hutu Ten Commandments," which set out principles of hate, such as Hutus who interacted with Tutsis were traitors, Tutsis were generally untrustworthy, Tutsis should not be in any positions of power in the country.
So these two outlets, which were supported, directly or indirectly, by the government, fomented ethnic hatred in the country. BOB GARFIELD: So how do you go into that environment and explain that the value of free expression trumps any historical fears? ENRIQUE ARMIJO: Some of what we do is to try to identify international treaties that Rwanda has signed onto that are more protective of freedom of expression than the current press law is. The Rwandan constitution states that any treaty to which Rwanda is a party takes precedence over domestic law.
So we had some kind of freedom of expression arrows in the quiver, but, of course, these documents were all pre-genocide. The officials in Rwanda, and even the people, see themselves as charged with the task of rebuilding the country. And they're also, frankly, a little bit skeptical of the international community. The domestic media in Rwanda was complicit in what happened, but I think it's fair to say that the international media community was complicit in the sense that what was about to happen and was happening in Rwanda was not reported.
So the public officials in Rwanda treat any kind of invocation of internationalism with a healthy and probably justified dose of skepticism. BOB GARFIELD: You were there as part of a team to analyze the situation and to make recommendations. What finally were your recommendations, and what expectation do you have that anybody there was really listening? ENRIQUE ARMIJO: We kind of like to break it down into two categories. There were aspirational recommendations and practical recommendations. In the former category, one example that I'd spoke of was the criminalization of libel. And the Parliamentarian's response to that is, well, libel and defamation are in the penal code. We can't give journalists any special treatment under the press law. If you as a private citizen defame me, it's a crime; so if a journalist defames me, that should be a crime as well.
On the other hand, there were some recommendations that we made in terms of freedom of expression that we hope will be accepted. And we also – whether it's licensing of journalists, licensing of a radio station – if we couldn't remove those provisions from the law entirely, we sought to make explicit that those decisions were appealable to an independent authority to try to diffuse power in the system to the degree that we could. BOB GARFIELD: So tell me about the reaction from the Rwandan Parliamentarians. Did they treat you dismissively and say, you know, walk a mile in our shoes and then think about these high-falutin' principles that you're bestowing upon us? Or were they actually moved by your arguments?
ENRIQUE ARMIJO: Well, they're very grateful and they're very gracious, but I wouldn't kid myself into thinking that I was the first Westerner to come in to try to tell Rwandans how they should [LAUGHS] run Rwanda.
My hope is that some of our recommendations will make it into the final law. But I think even people in the public see this as a very delicate balance; there are thousands of extremist Hutus right on the other side of the border of the country. The government truly believes that it may only take another Kangura or another RTLM to take it back down that road. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Enrique, thank you so much. ENRIQUE ARMIJO: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Enrique Armijo is a media law attorney at Covington and Burling in Washington, DC. He took part in the evaluation of the Rwandan press laws with the British Stanhope Centre and the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications.