“April is the cruelest month” in the history of Rwanda. On 6 April 1994, a plane carrying the then Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi – both belonging to Hutu ethnicity – was shot down, killing everyone on board.
Immediately afterwards, Hutu extremists started blaming the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and launched a well-organised killing of Tutsi civilians, Hutu moderates, as well as reformist government ministers. The RPF said the plane had been shot down by Hutus to provide an excuse for the killing.
Over the next hundred days, approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were hacked to death by their machete-wielding Hutu neighbours. Anybody can ask how ordinary people were capable of killing fellow human beings so mercilessly.
The answer was given by a former génocidaire who had been listening intently to the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLMC), an Rwandan radio station which broadcast from July 8, 1993 to July 31, 1994: “They kept saying Tutsis were cockroaches. Because they had given up on them we started working and killed them.”
Over the previous four years, the radio and other media had engaged in vicious hate propaganda against the Tutsi population. This propaganda was extremely effective, as evidenced in the statement of another ex-génocidaire: “It was a time of hatred. Our heads were hot. We were animals.”
The radio propaganda was accompanied by inciting speeches and direct calls for the extermination of the Tutsi population. All of them made possible the following genocide that lasted from April to July. Because of the incitement to genocide, the radio station earned the nickname “Radio Machete,” which was equally held responsible by the United Nations-led International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Similarly, if we analyse the history of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, we will find how Jamaat’s mouthpiece “The Sangram” spread propaganda to stigmatise freedom fighters (FF). Freedom fighters were branded as collaborators of India and enemies of Pakistan and Islam. The newspaper instigated Jamaat men and its associate bodies – Razakars, Al-Badr, Al-Shams and the like – to stand against the freedom movement, and legitimised the killings of freedom-loving Bangalis in the name of religion.
Even before the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, anti-Semitic writers such as Heinrich von Treitschke made such propaganda seem legitimate and succeeded in making it “ideologically acceptable to blame Jews for Germany’s social, economic, and moral troubles,” thus contributing to the climate which facilitated, if not made possible, the Holocaust planned by Hitler and committed by ordinary Germans in Nazi Germany.
Hitler was fully aware of the powers of propaganda. He, assisted by Joseph Goebbels, aimed to prepare the Germans for the subsequent mass murder of the Jewish people. The propaganda film “Jud Süss” (The Jew ‘Sweet’) was extremely successful; after seeing the film, some people were so agitated, “they emerged from Berlin theatres screaming curses at the Jews: ‘Drive the Jews from the Kurfürstendamm! Kick the last Jews out of Germany!”
We understand how propaganda was used to dehumanise people and political opponents to justify their killings in different parts of the world at different historical times. But the purpose of this writing is not to bombard the readers with the history of propaganda.
Referring to historical facts sheds some light on the nature of propaganda that is being spread in Bangladesh’s online sphere, ever since the 2013 Shahbagh movement centering on the war crimes issue.
During the movement, we saw how propaganda was used to dub the organisers of the movement as atheists. The people who gathered there and the people who wrote in favour of punishment for war criminals were also branded as associates of the atheists.
Some media organisations and Facebook pages launched well-organised smear campaigns against the justice-seekers. I must say they were successful in making commoners and Facebook users believe that the people, who demanded punishment for those involved in war crimes in 1971, were the enemies of Islam.
We must not forget that the picture of convicted war criminal Delawar Hossain Sayedee superimposed on the face of moon was posted in Jamaat-Shibir’s Facebook page Basherkella with the caption: “From late Friday night to early Saturday, people from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia saw Sayedee’s face (in the moon). Such an image is God’s sign that true devotees are honored in different ways.”
The picture was circulated through cellphones all over the country to instigate the illiterate and the poor people against Sayedee’s war crimes trial. To draw attention of those who do not use internet, announcements were made through loudspeakers of mosques about the picture in Chittagong, Rajshahi, and Bogra. Though the propagandists could influence some people, they could not feed the blatant lie to the vast majority.
These are a few examples of hundreds of propaganda campaigns run by Jamaat and its associate organisations both online and offline. But what is alarming these days is the spread of propaganda in the name of different online news portals. This is a new but very effective tool to spread propaganda in the guise of “journalism”.
But is that journalism? Apart from bdnews24.com, a prominent online newspaper in Bangladesh, there are a few, if not many, news organisations which are trying to set their own standard in journalism.
Except them, there are plenty of sites having names ending with 24.com. Does 24.com mean that they are online newspapers in the true sense of the term? Does it mean that what these organisations spread have to be believed?
As a journalist, I understand that there is no scope for a reporter to insert his or her own feelings in news reports.
The report has to be substantiated by sources, giving space to different parties in a bid to make it objective.
The absence of the minimum journalistic standard makes us understand that the “reports” circulated by the Facebook groups of the “news portals,” are nothing but propaganda aiming to serve the ulterior purpose of certain vested quarters.
Propaganda is no doubt being spread targeting growing Facebook users, who are tricked in its dissemination by sharing the content on their walls. People often get engaged in online debate over the propaganda considering it as legitimate “news”.
Here lies the responsibility of potential readers and Facebook users: They must decide whether they would act as helping hands in this propaganda’s spread, or if they would stop circulation by simply not believing anything without substantiation.
It is almost impossible to bring the propagandists under justice as they work behind the curtains. Similarly, it is absurd to blame the government solely for not cracking down on the sites and their operators.
How many propaganda sites can the government block? It is also the equal responsibility of readers to decide what to believe and what to reject. They must educate themselves to understand the distinction between journalism and propaganda.
Apart from propagandist news sites, there is a growing popularity of certain Facebook pages and groups among Bangladeshi users. These groups and pages play with the emotions of their followers.
There is nothing wrong in it when you see it without a critical mind.
We must not forget that the radio station that spread incitement to killing in Rwanda was a famous radio station. It used to broadcast popular music and jokes to carve a niche in the people’s mind. Later, the popularity was used to motivate the general public to kill fellow human beings.
This is the power of propaganda that it creates ground without letting the future perpetrators know that they are being prepared for committing crimes.
With the cumulative rise of internet users in Bangladesh, anti-Liberation forces and extremist elements have been using online platforms to indoctrinate youth through the skillful use of propaganda.
Lately, writer Avijit Roy and blogger Washiqur Rahman were hacked to death within the span of a single month. Prior to killing them, it was justified through online propaganda that atheists like the duo should be killed, a mindset skillfully developed among a section of the youth soon after the Shahbagh movement.
Through inciting comments, Facebook users were instigated to take the lead in killing atheists. It was shocking to learn that hundreds of people supported such killings through their comments.
I started the article referring to the Rwandan radio station working like a “machete” through its propaganda and inciting speeches. Inspired by the instigating words broadcast from the radio station, members of Hutu community just went out there and hacked their neighbours to death with machetes.
Is it too much to say that “Radio Machete” used against Tutsis in Rwanda, is similarly creating the “Online Machete” in Bangladesh?
Can we deny that the “Online Machete” is not being sharpened against the spirit of Bangladesh that has already left some marks in the recent past?
I won’t believe that anti-Liberation forces and extremist elements will succeed in Bangladesh like they did with “Radio Machete.” But it’s time for much-needed soul-searching.
Ask yourself whether you are enlightened and not misguided by propaganda – the Hutus miserably failed to understand this. Your farsightedness and constant vigilance are enough to blunt the “Online Machete.”
Abu Tayub Mohammed Farhad is pursuing his masters in global journalism from Örebro University, Sweden.