16th April 2014
By Stefanie Chernow

Media dialogue on hate speech in Africa: Speech by EJN Director

The following speech was given by Aidan White, EJN Director, during the Media dialogue on hate speech in Africa conference in Kigali on April 17th 2014. Learn more about the Turning the Page of Hate Campaign.

Dear Friends,

First of all can I add my welcome to all of you on behalf of the Ethical Journalism Network, which is a new international media coalition which aims to strengthen the craft of journalism and to build public trust in media.

We are a young organisation – formed just two years ago – but we already have the support of the world’s leading media professional groups of editors, journalists and media owners, including those represented here today.

Our mission is a simple one — to strengthen journalism by building support for ethics, good governance and self-regulation.

These are the cornerstones of a media culture that we desperately need today across the globe, but particularly here in Africa, where many journalists still work in a twilight world of corruption, poverty and fear.

I am pleased that for our first activity in Africa, the EJN in association with our friends at the African Media Initiative, the African Editors Forum, the Federation of African Journalists, the World Association of Newspapers, and of course our hosts the Media High Council of Rwanda, we have come to Kigali to discuss and I hope to launch a new campaign for African media – Turning the Page of Hate.

This campaign aims to reinforce the aspirations of African journalists to challenge intolerance, to eliminate hatred and incitement, and to promote independent and inclusive journalism.

I want to share with you a few personal comments about the importance of these two days.

I am ashamed to say that this is my first visit to Kigali. But although I have never been here I feel I know the country well, not least through the story of its tragic past.

In April 1994 I was working as General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, a privileged position which I held for twenty-four years. I remember that month well. It was a time of enormous optimism and change in Africa.

The world’s media was focused on historic changes taking place in South Africa, where apartheid was ended and the country was preparing for its first non-racial elections.

I have just come from Cape Town, where journalists are in good heart as they prepare for the 20th anniversary later this month of that momentous event.

This was I remember the story from Africa that dominated the headlines and airwaves around the world in those days. Scant attention was paid to what was happening here in Rwanda.

Few media properly reported the scale and nature of the violence after April 6; few journalists bothered to analyse or set in context the appalling tragedy that over 100 days saw the slaughter of around a million people.

Many of them casually and shockingly dismissed the story. As one British journalist told a colleague when asked about what was happening here he said: “Rwanda? Oh that’s just the Tutsi and the Hutu smashing each other’s heads in. It’s never-ending tribal warfare.”

This sort of casual stereotyping of Africa has always been unconscionable, but in the dark days of April 1994 it was particularly shocking.

In fact, of course, this was no tribal squabble, it was unspeakable genocide, killing on an industrial scale and the most horrific since Cambodia’s killing fields. It was rightly described as “Africa’s holocaust” by Romeo Dallaire, the anguished commander of United Nations forces whose desperate calls at the time for international action to stop the killings were ignored.

I cannot help but feel that the international media played a crucial and perhaps shameful role by failing to react quickly to tell the story until the bodies had been piled so high and the evidence of inhumanity so intense that it couldn’t be ignored.

We in media, of course, also recognise in hindsight the scandalous role of Radio Mille Collines.

I am one of many who regret that there was no international action to strike down that vile propaganda factory which orchestrated so much of the killing.

But there were journalists, of course, who kept the faith with their profession and paid the price.

In sum, we can all recognise the treachery of Radio Mille Collines, but in our condemnation we should also recognise that there was a failure of journalism beyond the borders of Rwanda. It is regrettable that too few journalists have had the humility and courage to admit the mistakes that we made.

It’s for that reason that this meeting is so important.

It is not just that we should remember and honour those who died, but also that we learn a vital lesson for journalism.

And it’s one that still needs to be understood by all journalists – at home and abroad – that when inhumanity is unleashed we can never stand idly by or make excuses, we have a duty and an obligation to tell the story and to call the world’s attention to it.

The Turning the Page of Hate campaign that we shall discuss over the next two days helps remind us that as journalists our ethics – to tell the truth, to respect the facts, to be independent, to be responsible and, above all, to show humanity – oblige us to avoid becoming propagandists and foot soldiers in political campaigns that nourish hatred by feeding on the insecurities of people.

Finally, let me thank the organisers for their good work in organising this event. We are grateful for your commitment. I also hope that this meeting will open the door to a new dialogue, not just within the community of journalists, but also with the government.

In the years after genocide regulations and laws were passed to limit and control the passions that lead to violence. These were legitimate restraints, but the time has come – when media and journalists will be allowed to work more freely without undue restrictions.

We should remember that controlling information – even when done with the best of intentions – weakens the role of the press in providing honest and critical scrutiny of the exercise of power.

Free and independent journalism, exercised in a framework of ethical values, will always provide an early warning of potential trouble ahead. It is widely known that there are no famines and there is no genocide in societies where the media are free.

But setting the media free is not easy when a country is living in the shadow of violence. However, the time must come when we move on.

I welcome the steps taken in Rwanda in the past months to restore to journalists and media their rights and responsibilities to police their own affairs. This is an important start, but there is still much to do.

Placing trust in media to tell the stories that we need to know about is also a way of placing trust in ourselves.

Journalists in Rwanda understand very well that media must be responsible and that journalism must have the trust of the people – majorities and minorities included.

It is a sure sign of progress towards the creation of a secure, confident society when journalists are trusted to regulate themselves, to speak to power with honesty and conviction and to help shape an inclusive vision of the future.

Our meeting will, I hope, make a small and modest contribution to that objective.

It will also, I hope, provide models for helping journalists across all platforms of African media.

The threats of intolerance, hatred, and fear lurk everywhere. Whether it is a matter of race, tribe, religion, gender or cultural difference journalism has to show that we can embrace pluralism and respect for the other.

When this happens ethical journalism can succeed in making sure that the tragedies of history both at home and abroad remain where they belong – in the past.

Thank you

Aidan White can be followed on Twitter at @aidanpwhite.

Sign up for the EJN newsletter and be informed of the latest events in ethical journalism.