By Prof. Gerise Herndon–December 5, 2010

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press: for most U.S. citizens, these self-evident ideals form our nation’s foundation. Rwanda, the site of the most efficient genocide in history with a million Tutsis dead after 100 days, complicated how I make sense of those terms. After my Women Writing Across Cultures class discussed the power of hate rhetoric to mobilize citizens to rise up and kill their neighbors, Reveille staff requested that I share how living in Rwanda shaped my views of freedom of speech.

“It’s time to go to work.” In 1994, this seemingly innocuous sentence repeated by radio personalities and priests served as a code in the language Kinyarwanda. Translation: “Kill Tutsis.” News reports became hate radio. Melodic music became incitement to violence. Media became one means to motivate Rwandans to kill neighbors, friends and even family members who had been recast as outsiders and foreigners. Radio announcers’ playful style and edgy humor combined with declarations of their own honesty and trustworthiness.

The Tutsis did not have access to the radio waves. When calls to “exterminate the cockroaches” and “kill the snakes before they kill you” unmistakably promoted killing, the U.S. could have jammed radio waves. We chose not to, in part because of international conventions on freedom of speech.

Sixteen years later, when a caller to a radio show in Rwanda argued: “We should finish the job,” he was arrested for advocating genocide ideology. To a U.S. citizen, the notion of legislating ideology seems ludicrous. In Kinyarwanda, the phrase signaled to Hutu extremists: resume genocide and exterminate Tutsis completely this time. Non- Rwandan press has seized on this and other controversies: two tabloids were suspended for libel and inciting violence. A self-proclaimed presidential candidate and her U.S. lawyer were arrested for publicly contending that Hutus were victims of a genocide by Tutsis.

According to colleagues who speak Kinyarwanda and know its own internal codes, these speakers’ phrases had the effect of retraumatizing genocide survivors and triggering PTSD. Perhaps even more alarming, they imply messages to Hutu extremists that the fight against the “enemy within” should resume.

The supposed hero of Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina, also claims that Tutsis killed equal numbers of Hutu. His trivializing of the Tutsi genocide has earned him the contempt of Rwandans. (Doane has invited Rusesabagina to speak in February, surely unaware of his harmful claims and how he is viewed within Rwanda.)

Human Rights Watch regularly warns of repression in Rwanda — after interviewing a handful of citizens who may or may not be former genocide perpetrators. Amnesty International criticizes Rwanda’s laws against genocide denial but not Germany’s prohibiting Holocaust denial. What foreigners’ a historical outrage ignores is the region’s complex history. Merely 17 years ago Rwanda had been completely destroyed: rotting corpses lay in the streets. International human rights organizations were nowhere in sight. Today the streets are virtually free of violence, weapons and even trash. Rwanda’s economic progress and leadership on gender equality (with the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world) serves as a model for other African nations.

We often make well-meaning attempts to translate “universals” such as freedom of speech and democracy into cultures that we as outsiders can never fully understand. Unfortunately the attempt to save cultures from themselves ends up being lost in translation. Senator Aloisea Inyumba questions such assumptions: “For Rwandans, democracy is protecting the welfare of our citizens, not the cosmetic version of merely holding elections.” We may consider democracy to be majority rule, but what happens when the majority tries to kill the minority? What does freedom of speech mean when few have access? The Supreme Court in The United States extended the right of free speech to corporations. But speech is far from free in the U.S.: $4 billion worth of campaign funds were spent on midterm elections this fall, and actual citizens don’t even have the right to know who actually paid the bills.

I returned from Rwanda wondering if our country has too much freedom of speech. What would a visiting Rwandan think about speech that equates a U.S. president with the genocidal dictatorship of Hitler? What effect does the word “illegal” have when applied to a human being rather than an action? Does the increased use of “illegal immigrant” relate to the increased harassment of Latinos and Sudanese in Fremont, Nebraska?

Consider the effect of repeated harassment—perhaps understood as free speech—of a young person who loves someone of the same sex. Slurs against sexual orientation or gender identity are free for the speaker but costly for the listener. The recently publicized suicides of gay teenagers should give us pause. Rather than advocating censorship, I ask us to remember how hate media contributed to ordinary citizens becoming executioners in Rwanda. Consider the power of speech not only to influence elections, but to traumatize and to incite violence.



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