Incendiary Media Use and The Failure of the Rwandan Case

Use of the media is a powerful tool in crimes against humanity for the following reasons: it allows the wielder to shape contemporary discourse, it helps desensitise and marginalise those who are not being targeted, and it can successfully contribute to the generation, entrenchment and wholesale acceptance of dangerous demographic stereotypes, which often serve as the premise for ensuing violence.

The Rwandan Genocide is a prime example of how influential persons in control of sources of information, such as radio broadcasts and newsletters, can distort and filter the material that the public can access. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which was tasked with prosecuting various violations of international humanitarian law during the genocide, handed down a landmark judgment on this use of the media. This judgment, along with two significant cases of incendiary media use during the Third Reich in Germany, constitute a large part of the law on attribution of responsibility to the perpetrators.

I will analyse each case in order to arrive at an appropriate standard for responsibility, and to demonstrate why I think the Appeals Chamber of the ICTR did not do a good job.

I. The Case of Julius Streicher 

The Nazi regime in Germany is well-known for its careful, manipulative use of the media. Julius Streicher was the founder and editor of an anti-Semitic newsletter called Der Stürmer, translatable to ‘The Attacker’. He made various far-fetched and malicious claims about Jews in the cartoons and articles he published in this newsletter scapegoating them for Germany’s economic problems and criminal happenings. In an article published in a 1939 edition of Der Stürmer, the author decried the idea of a ‘decent Jew’, stating his intention to make the public of the Third Reich understand why it was a “shameless lie”.

Streicher was tried by a military chamber at Nuremberg. The Tribunal found no direct causality between his acts and specific acts of killing Jews.  He had issued no direct orders to anybody to exterminate the Jews and had not actually participated in the Holocaust. However, his circulation of vitriolic messages was noted as a “poison” which infiltrated the citizenry’s minds and made them subscribe to the general atmosphere of anti-Semitism. It quoted the following statement from Der Sturmer to illustrate Streicher’s ill-intentions: “A punitive expedition must come against the Jews in Russia. A punitive expedition which will provide the same fate for them that every murderer and criminal must expect. Death sentence and execution. The Jews in Russia must be killed. They must be exterminated root and branch.”  The Tribunal considered that his efforts, in line with this sentiment, constituted incitement to murder and extermination of Jews.

In other words, Streicher had successfully contributed to desensitizing the non-Jewish population and was held responsible for crimes against humanity.

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