BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On Wednesday, two Rwandan journalists were sentenced to life imprisonment by a UN war crimes tribunal convened in neighboring Tanzania. Ferdinand Nahimana and Hassan Ngeze had been convicted of inciting genocide in the 1994 Rwandan bloodbath that killed 800,000 minority Tutsis. Nahimana's broadcasts targeted specific victims, and Ngeze's newspaper promulgated a Hutu "ten commandments," inciting murder of civilians. They were found to have used the media as a machete. The first such verdict since the 1946 Nuremberg trial of Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher. Stephen Rapp was a prosecutor in the Rwanda case, and he joins me now from Arusha, Tanzania. Stephen, welcome back to OTM.
STEPHEN RAPP: Good to be on.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about this verdict. What is its significance?
STEPHEN RAPP: Well it was a-- absolutely groundbreaking verdict. It's really the first time that the media, and specifically the people who controlled it, were held responsible for their broadcasts as the crimes that constituted the genocide and direct public incitement to genocide.
BOB GARFIELD: What was the defense?
STEPHEN RAPP:The defense initially was, you know, that these were political organs that were stating their views. There was an invasion going on, and they were denouncing that enemy that was threatening what they viewed as democracy in the country, and that these things never really had any causal connection to any killings. Now, eventually during the during the course of the case, we very solidly showed that there was a very direct causal connection, that the killers were directed to specific places of refuge, even to specific victims, specific cars where somebody was identified by a license number. And so, they pulled back from that and basically took the position that at the time that the media became truly virulent, they were no longer in control of it. They had started it for benign purposes and then later on it was taken over, and they had nothing to do with it. And the most challenging part of proving the case was showing their control. Its individuals that had to be held responsible, and that's what the judges found we were able to do.
BOB GARFIELD: To what extent did the defendants argue that the right of free expression entitled them to print whatever they wished.
STEPHEN RAPP:We had that argument, particularly from Ngeze who has an American counsel and who made the public policy argument that even though the First Amendment didn't apply to this case, that we were really under international law, the court should reach out and apply a similar standard, and that not to do so would be to essentially invite dictators to suppress dissent. They were constantly saying that things like the Hutu ten commandments thing, that one should have no pity on the Tutsis, were nasty, but it's the kind of thing that you should permit as part of a fledgling democracy, and that, really, since there was no direct connection to the violence as, as they would say, there should be protected expression.
BOB GARFIELD: Did the court rule specifically on that argument before rendering its final verdict?
STEPHEN RAPP:In a sense, yes. I mean the court did spend a lot of time being very careful about the fact that certain types of expression and certain articles, etc, wild and vituperative and whatever were protected. It's when you begin to, to talk about an enemy and you begin to talk about the destruction of that enemy, and you begin to define that in terms that are clearly understood to mean not a military opponent but Tutsi civilians, that you cross the line, and so they found that the line had been crossed. The line internationally they set at a little different place than we would set it in America. They followed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees free expression in its famous Article 19, but in Article 20, it allows, indeed mandates, laws against the incitement of hatred, discrimination and violence. And that's a legal kind of thing that's different than America, because we have no explicit constitutional provision that allows restriction on hate speech. But one is implied in our law, by our courts, that once you have a clear and present danger, an immanency of violence, that speech does cross that line.
BOB GARFIELD:It strikes me as an extension of Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous admonition that the right of free speech does not permit you to scream "fire" in a crowded theater. But as a legal precedent, does it create a slippery slope and invite the suppression of legitimate free expression whenever there is an environment of violence?
STEPHEN RAPP: I'm always concerned about slippery slope arguments, because this is to say in essence that if you have police, you're going to have a police state. All law is about the distinctions, and in the case of expression, the fundamental decision that's made in democracy is that the best solution is wide open expression, the best answer to bad speech is good speech, and that that is going to be the almost universal rule. But just as in America where we've decided through our courts that there is a line that can be crossed, certainly to draw that line in the context of a genocidal or widespread and systematic attack on civilian population context, I think, is not dangerous and it is necessary at the end of the day, given what we demonstrated in Rwanda that use of the media in support of a killing campaign really needs to be restricted for the protection of all of us.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Stephen, thank you very much.
STEPHEN RAPP: Sure. Enjoyed it.
BOB GARFIELD:Stephen Rapp was the prosecutor in the International Court trial against Rwandan journalists who have been convicted of inciting genocide.