Information Intervention: When Switching Channels Isn't Enough

As the great powers lose enthusiasm for addressing mass human rights abuses with large-scale armed interventions, the international community must search for less risky alternatives that accomplish more than the symbolic and generally impotent condemnations from bodies like the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. One such measure would be to monitor, counter, and block radio and television broadcasts that incite widespread violence in crisis zones around the world.

Mass media reach not only people's homes, but also their minds, shaping their thoughts and sometimes their behavior. Many of the humanitarian disasters of the twentieth century were spawned or exacerbated over the airwaves: radio was used to propagate Nazi ideology in Germany and spur genocide in Rwanda, Somali warlords used it to incite civil war and widespread violence, and it has been instrumental, with television, in fomenting ethnic animosity and bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia. Countering such incendiary transmissions systematically, using information warfare techniques, will go a long way toward securing human rights short of costly, large-scale military investments.


Consider Rwanda. In January 1994 U.N. observers reported that Hutu extremist leaders were mobilizing to slaughter the minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Threatened by peace negotiations that could have undermined their political base, Hutu hard-liners began broadcasting fiery calls for a "final war" to exterminate Tutsi "cockroaches." After a suspicious April 1994 plane crash killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, the genocide began. Announcers on the Hutu extremist-controlled Radio-Televisions Libre des Milles Collines helped organize the militias and goaded the young killers, reading lists of enemies to be hunted down and butchered. Recognizing that these broadcasts were whipping Rwanda into a killing frenzy, the U.N. military commander in Kigali, General Romeo Dallaire, a few international human rights organizations, and several U.S. senators called for them to be jammed, but nothing was done. Instead, the small U.N. military contingent was drastically reduced, and the world stood by as 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered.

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