Freedom of Speech — and its costs

Leigh Barrett
Oct 19, 2019 · 13 min read

By Leigh Barrett, Executive Editor: Perspective Publications

Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities — Voltaire

To commit violence against another often reflects the insecurity of the perpetrator’s self-identity and, in countries where people are under socioeconomic or political pressure, there is a greater tendency to find reasons to distinguish themselves from those who appear “different”: sometimes from another country, but frequently fellow citizens and often family members, as people look for a way to express that insecurity.

Africa has played host to only a few of the genocides and wars the world has experienced over the millennia — from long before the Ottoman attacks on the Assyrians in the nineteenth century, the infamous Nazi extermination of the Jewish people in Europe, the efforts by some colonial powers to subdue or control their subjects in Asia, the Americas and beyond, the list seems to be endless. But, where does it begin? What is the catalyst that brings a group of people, often groups who have lived in peace with their neighbors for decades and even centuries, to that nadir where they rise up and are prepared to slaughter them in largescale numbers?

In arguably every case, the violence begins with words.

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Perhaps the most familiar to our recent memory is what happened in Rwanda.

People tend to take their history seriously, and the stories of the past are passed through the generations. Rwanda was settled over a period of two thousand years, with Hutu and Tutsi living peaceably under a system that was both complex and highly effective. Small groups based on ancestry or loyalty to their leader would set aside differences in order to share their common history. However, through the 18th century, the pastoralists and agrarians that made up Rwandan society were increasingly led by those who saw great advantage in accumulating wealth and power over their subjects. The mythology attached to some leaders exaggerated their power to the extent that they were thought able to control the rain, or manage pests, and other such grand tales. Over generations, these mythologies served to create deeper divisions between groups — and those divisions broke wide open with the arrival of the colonial powers.

In 1884, the Berlin Conference assigned Rwanda to Germany to manage. They did little with it, but that all changed when Belgium took it over during World War 1, and found themselves faced with a complex state that had developed over the centuries as Twa and Bantu groups settled into their claimed areas, and created several kingdoms.

Belgium changed the hierarchical structures that took too much of their energy to govern, and their lack of interest in understanding complex African tribal governance resulted in their preference to focus instead on the incredible wealth the region offered. Areas where the groups lived in harmony but with minimal governance were seen by the Europeans as a threat to their idea of good order. So, the Belgians started to restructure the country, regrouping chiefdoms and hierarchies, and systematically destroying the power of ancestral leaders. The Rwandan leaders, in many instances, were astute enough to play along — albeit keeping the rural chiefs and royal families in place without letting that knowledge reach the Europeans — and negotiated a lifestyle that benefitted them. It may have worked for the chiefs and rulers, but the ordinary person started to lose the economic battle as the benefits of working within the colonial system never filtered further than the upper echelons of society.

The Belgians decided that Tutsis should have the power monopoly, establishing the racism that became common policy among all colonial powers. It was sheer ignorance of the African system: the Belgians had no idea, and neither did they care, if these were groups, clans, tribes, or language groups. They quite simply deemed the Tutsis more capable because they looked more like Europeans, being taller, lighter-skinned, and with a more “Roman-shaped” nose. Hutus came in second place, being more “Bantu”, and the Twa, being aboriginal pygmy hunter-gatherers who preferred to live outside the system, lagged behind.

The Belgians then instituted European-style education, cementing a history learned from their Tutsi friends that was wildly inaccurate, and which ignored the contribution the other tribes had made to the Rwandan nation. Africa’s respect for European-quality education meant that generations of Rwandan schoolchildren, regardless of ancestry, learned this revised history until it became their own.

As colonialism crumbled across the continent from the late 1950’s, the majority Hutu started to rise up in an effort to protect their history, and their fight for tribe survival became known as the “Hutu Revolution”, culminating in Rwanda becoming an independent republic in 1961, with Hutu as the dominating government. Retaliatory attacks would flare up occasionally in the decades that followed, with Tutsis taking refuge in neighboring states of Burundi, Zaire, Tanzania and, notably for what came later, Uganda.

When coffee prices fell sharply in the late 1980’s, the commodity that accounted for 75% of its foreign exchange Rwanda fell into the “debtor nation” listing, required to adhere to strict fiscal measures imposed by the World Bank. Between the fall of coffee prices and a devastating drought, the imbalance of wealth and power in the country was starker than ever. The President, Habyarimana, a Hutu who had seized control in a coup in 1973, had become increasingly dictatorial, deliberately discriminating against the Tutsis, even while his system of quotas was theoretically designed to do the opposite.

Compounding the issues wrought by a destabilizing economy was the growing determination of Tutsi refugees, especially those in Uganda, to return home. Efforts made in this direction were halted by the President who claimed that, with current population demands on the weak economy, their return at the time was simply not possible. This denial was arguably the most important series of events leading up to the genocide of 1994.

Paul Kagame’s Tutsi family had fled Rwanda when he was a child, and he spent his years in Uganda, first enlisting in the rebel army and then becoming a senior Ugandan Army officer. After the Ugandan-Tanzanian war which saw the eventual ousting of Idi Amin in 1979, the Tutsi refugees had founded a refugee organization in which Kagame was very active. Frustrated by the President’’s refusal to allow them to return, in 1987, they renamed themselves the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a far more militaristic organization dedicated to returning refugees through force, if necessary.

Kagame took command of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (sometimes nicknamed “Inkotanyi” meaning “the invincible”), the military wing of the RPF, and the invasion by the refugees of their home country began in 1990.


One night, the capital city was rocked by heavy fire that lasted hours. Radio listeners were terrified to hear that the RPF had succeeded in attacking the presidential pal ace in Kigali. Both Tutsi and Hutu rallied around the President, who ordered mass arrests, detention, torture and the killing of dozens in response. The President went on air to warn people to stay in their homes until his army had killed the “cockroach invaders”.

He had, however, staged the entire “attack”: the RPF had been many miles from the city at the time. With this fact still unknown to the world, foreign troops from France, Belgium and Zaire rushed to the country’s aid, pushing back Kagame and the RPF, resulting in the deaths of around 1,000 civilians who were accused of supporting them.

The stage was set.

On 21 September, 1992, Colonel Nsabimama sent a top secret memorandum to his commanders, called “The Memo for the Protection of Human Rights”, which listed people thought to be RPA members or sympathizers. It included a definition of “the enemy”, the principle being, “…the Tutsi inside or outside the country, extremist and nostalgic for power, who have NEVER recognized and will NEVER recognize the realities of the 1959 social revolution and who wish to reconquer power by all means necessary, including arms…”

From 1990, media coverage was relent less, with anti-Tutsi articles and cartoons appearing in the press, and in 1993, a radio station called Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTMLC) started broadcasting, joining Radio Rwanda, the government-owned station, in directing hate-filled rhetoric towards the Tutsis. The transcripts of those broadcasts are freely available, and the theme of many of the conversations settles on pointing out the (perceived) differences between Tutsi and Hutu, serving to “otherize” the Tutsis by pointing out the advantages they’d had in terms of education, appearance, and almost any other distinction the broadcasters could use to send their message. By delving back into the people’s flawed history, the media was able to insert into their propaganda the message that the Hutus had every right to attack the Tutsis.

After 1990, opponents referred to the RPD as Inyenzi, or cockroaches.

By 1993, the calls to violence became more intense and direct, calling blatantly for the killing of Tutsis, even directing people to certain locations where Tutsis could be found.

“(The) cockroaches Inkotanyi who came killing us and eating our things saying that they will take power….asked the assistance of children, white men and sorcerers… So I think that Inkotanyi will continue to die in our potatoes.”

“…usually they came driving cattle in front of them… Then, the cows are killed and the Inyenzi continued to advance.”

Frequently, Radio Rwanda would say the enemy was actually Uganda; foreigners coming to rape and pillage the country. The broadcast would then meander into a clear indication that these “foreigners” were Tutsi, and encouraged listeners to defend their country by “pushing them back”.

When President Habyarimana died in a plane crash in April 1994, radio stations and Hutu-led press blamed the Tutsis for shooting down the plane, and urged their audiences to “cut the tall trees”, a clear reference to the taller, more “European-looking” Tutsis. Hutus were encouraged to “finish the work” (many of the references to killing their fellow citizens came in references to “work”).


As a general rule, the more something is repeated, the more validity it attains in listener’s minds. The role of the “accusation in a mirror” or “human rights inversion” has been used throughout history to incite xenophobia and genocide, or at the very least, violence against one’s perceived enemy. Defaming specific groups to encourage their attack and subsequent death has proved very effective, including during Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia, and the Middle East. And 1990-era Rwanda was no different.

In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, a document was found entitled, Note Relative a la Propagande d’Expansion et de Recrutement (“The Note”). It drew from Goebbels, Lenin and others to create a manual of ways to incite ordinary civilians to attack their fellow countrymen. The principal method was called “accusation in a mirror”. It’s very simple: one side spreads the word that the other side is going to enact horrific acts upon them. The falsehoods are spread widely and, as a result of the wording, civilians are thus literally directed on what action to take.

One such example was Rwandan politician, Leon Mugesera, who informed his audience that Tutsis were “cleaning up Rwanda . . . by throwing Hutu in the Nyabarongo River.” Shortly after the speech, many Tutsis were thrown to their death in that river. It was a perfect example of inversion.

In November 1992, Mugesera delivered an impassioned speech to his fellow Hutus, warning that they were about to “exterminated” by “cockroaches”, and he urged them to act. The following day, several killings took place. In one speech, Mugesera stated, “If justice therefore is no longer serving the people… we must do something ourselves to exterminate this rabble.”

The language is consistent with various examples of AiM — referring to people as cockroaches, or rats, urging “extermination” of pests.


Tribal differences have always been a part of Kenyan life, but in 2007, it was the Kikuyu people who faced down their fellow Kenyans, most notably the Kalenjin tribe, the second largest ethnic group in Kenya. The Kikuyu have a very old grievance and, once again, it dates back to colonial times when they were forced to leave their traditional highlands and settle in the Rift Valley amidst the Masai. Until that time, the Kikuyu had been a dominant force, independent and fierce — most notably towards Arab slavers, who found themselves on the wrong end of the spear when trying to involve the Kikuyu in the trade.

The British were determined to control the population and take over their fertile land for agriculture. In response to their defiance, the Kikuyu were tortured and killed by the British, and, in order to survive, finally started to get involved in politics to resist the British from within the political structure.

In the evening of the swearing-in of President Kibaki, a Kikuyu, who may or may not have won the election through fraudulent means, the Opposition leader from the Lou tribe, Raila Odinga, called for protests against the election results. His call hit the mark, and his supporters started to riot, rampaging through the city, seeking out and killing Kikuyu people. Scores of people were killed, and multiple incidents of sexual violence and other atrocities, were reported. In one of the more horrific acts, 50 unarmed Kikuyu women and children were locked inside a church and burned alive.

In the violence that overtook Kenya during the elections, AiM became a most effective political tool. Media, as it had in Rwanda, played a dominant role in broadcasting to their listeners just how their opponents planned to “exterminate” them. Each side was convinced that the other was preparing for their slaughter — and therefore, they needed to “defend” themselves by killing the other side first.

After the violence of 2008, the report presented to the Waki Commission specified ways in which the media played a direct role in exacerbating the violence. The vast majority of broadcasters are not trained in conflict mediation or moderation, and are mostly partisan. This is true of every country in the world. Kenya’s main issue is not the freedom of speech on radio, but the lack of independence in broadcasting. Media in the country is state-controlled, and thus provided a platform for not only broadcasters, but also government politicians to spew their hate-filled rhetoric about the “Others” at will.

Listeners would opine about how they wanted to “liberate” themselves from certain communities; coded messages implicitly calling for violence against another tribe.

While what happened in Kenya cannot be compared to Rwanda in terms of scale or lives lost, the alarming fact remains that the media has a crucial role to play in encouraging violence, which can lead to genocide.

The International Criminal Court is hearing the case against Kenyan broad caster Joshuha Arap Sang, a prominent supporter of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement, and who has been charged with crimes against humanity. Sang’s radio station, Kass FM, was instrumental in spreading messages of hate and incitement to violence and, in true AiM fashion, falsely reported news regarding the murders of Kalenjin tribe members.

While there have been reports that Kenyans have learned their lesson from the violence of 2008, it is hard to imagine that they — or another generation — won’t fall for the same rhetoric as before. Despite Kenya having passed laws banning hate speech and taking steps to hire 120 police officers to assist in monitoring hate speech for this election period, there is already an increase in the rhetoric that is threatening the 2017 presidential elections.

When people are forced into voting for one particular party because of tribal affiliations, there can only be one outcome: that party/tribe becomes dominant, and instead of uniting a country beyond ethnic boundaries, the country is then split into smaller pieces, with the larger groups struggling for an increased share of the cake.

When the extremist al-Shabaab militia took responsibility for the attack in the coastal town of Mpeketoni in June 2014 which killed 56 people, President Kenyatta referred to it as having been perpetrated by his opposition tribe, the Kikuyu.


After Burundi’s President Nkurunziza decided to ignore the Constitution and run for a third term in 2015, violent clashes erupted — with many fleeing as refugees to neighboring countries, including Rwanda. Media broadcasts controlled by the government started with targeting those opposed to a third term, but it soon escalated to an intimidation campaign and calls for violence, sparking fears that another “ethnic cleansing” was on the cards for the country.

Analysts and human rights activists sent up warning flags after the president of the Burundian senate started referring to “kora” meaning to “work” or “start work”: the same euphemism familiar to previous genocides. And then President Nkurunziza, in calling on people to hand in illegal firearms, referred to those who refused as “cockroaches”. Leaders of areas working with the government were promised land owned by the “traitors”. He included a desire to “exterminate and pulverize” opponents. Senate president Ndikuriyo: “Today, the police shoot in the legs. But when the day comes that we tell them to go to ‘work’, do not come crying to us.”

It became clear to all that the government was calling for a genocide; another version of a Hutu-Tutsi war, but this time along political lines, rather than tribal.

In April 2016, the International Criminal Court announced that it would be investigating the outbreaks of violence as possible war crimes.


There are clear warning signs when the line is crossing from expressing an opinion to the incitement of violence, and the world has surely seen enough examples to thoroughly understand what it is by now. In recent years, xenophobic attacks in South Africa against those who have come from other parts of Africa have received attention.

Zulu king Zwelithini was quoted as saying, “We urge all foreigners to pack their bags and leave.” His statements were mirrored in the actions by some of his subjects in violent attacks against foreigners in the Durban area, forcing them to flee their homes. While the king then condemned the attacks, there is little doubt that his followers were heeding his words.

The son of President Zuma was investigated for repeatedly stating his opposition to foreigners (he narrowed the definition to “illegal residents”), saying, “Remember when I said that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb… You never know whether they are funding ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and al-Shabaab. However, I am not saying that they are.”

Once one understands what hate speech is, the euphemisms and coded language become very obvious. But, after all, if it wasn’t so effective, would so many still utilize it?

(This article was previously published in Perspective: Africa, Volume 2)

To contact the author, email:


Contemporary international issues, literature, philosophy…

Leigh Barrett

Written by

Editor, writer, audio editor, community changemaker, thought leader, living on the world’s oldest mountain.



Contemporary international issues, literature, philosophy, psychology, art, science, and history. A combined initiative of MIPJ: Media, Information, International Relations, and Humanitarian Affairs ( and Humanitas Media Publishing (

Leigh Barrett

Written by

Editor, writer, audio editor, community changemaker, thought leader, living on the world’s oldest mountain.



Contemporary international issues, literature, philosophy, psychology, art, science, and history. A combined initiative of MIPJ: Media, Information, International Relations, and Humanitarian Affairs ( and Humanitas Media Publishing (

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