About freedom of speech – From Rwanda to Facebook…

By Thomas Elfgren, Finnish Criminal Detective and grandfather of 4 grandchildren – see below…

“If someone were looking for simple and effective means to prevent the genocide in Rwanda, the radio station RTLM would have been a good place to start.”

These are the words by Philip Gourevitch, the American author and journalist who became widely known for his book, “We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.”

The history of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi has been told and written by many. 

I listened to many of them during my years in Rwanda. Stories told by Tutsi survivors who witnessed the killings of their family members, friends and neighbours. Stories told by Hutu genocidaires, who by brutal means killed their neighbours, even their own friends and family members.

It all started the 7th of April 1994, 24 years ago. The previous evening, the aircraft carrying the president and his entourage, was shot down from its glide path to the Kigali international airport.  This event signalled the beginning of the most brutal genocide known by human history. In just 100 days an estimated 800 000 to a million of the Rwandan Tutsi minority and moderate Hutu were killed by machetes and sticks. Their homes were burned, and their belongings were stolen. The most powerful instrument of the genocide was the Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines.

While the international media had its focus on the Balkan conflict, the UN Security Council did its utmost to find reason not to prevent and later not to interfere with the ongoing slaughter of humans in Rwanda. Everyone knew well in advance that members of the core political elite, many of whom occupied positions at top levels of the national government planned for the “final solution”. General Romeo Dallaire, the United Nations Force Commander for the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, informed his superiors at the UN HQ in New York about stored weapons caches around Kigali. He received an explicit order not to confiscate them.

Back to the role of the media.  Dallaire later wrote: “Within the country, Rwandan media played an exceptionally important role in the genocide. The local media, particularly the extremist  Radio-Television Libre des Milles Collines, were literally part of the genocide. The genocidaires used the media like a weapon.”

Hate speech and incitement of violence was broadcasted every day on the radio.

And the Hutu men and women were listening.  I can recall a number of interviews I had with some of the killers. “We were every day assured by local leaders and radio broadcasts that it was the right thing to do. If we do not kill, they will kill us. We could kill the “cockroaches” without legal consequences.”

The Human Rights Watch developed the argument that international silence and failure to interrupt the broadcasts by RTML made it possible for the Hutu to continue. In the meantime, whilst the genocide was at full swing, the US State Department took the legal position that freedom of speech is guaranteed by international conventions and thereby the US should not interrupt the radio broadcasts. United States was the one who could have easily done that.

This is worth repeating. Hate speech and incitement to violence was seen to be protected by the principal of freedom of speech. I have always maintained the position that legal scholars should not have the last say when lives are at stake. Preventing and interfering with ongoing hate speech can under no circumstances be seen as a violation of the freedom of speech.  The very core values of humanity are failing if we fail to challenge this ideology.

This brings me to two recently published articles. The Guardian published an UN report about the role of Facebook in the Rogingya crisis: “Hate speech exploded on Facebook at the start of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar last year, analysis has revealed, with experts blaming the social network for creating chaos in the country. The author of the original report added:  I really don’t know how Zuckerberg and co sleep at night after evidence emerges of a spike in posts inciting violence.”

The second article provides an insight into why they indeed can sleep. The Vice President Andrew Bosworth outlines it in plain words: “Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.”

I have to assume, that he meant what he said – as long as no one dear to him is killed. My message is simple. We did nothing to prevent the Rwandan genocide, but we have expressed regrets that we didn’t. Freedom of speech is not an end itself.

General Dallaire wrote: “the haunting image of killers with machete in one hand and a radio in the other never leaves you.”


Thomas Elfgren, born 1954, is a criminal detective in Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation. He is an expert in psychological profiling, and heads the organized crime unit, and the is a lead investigator of war crimes and genocide cases. 

He has been in charge of solving the many infamous crimes and in Finland as well as prosecuting the Rwandan priest, Francois Bazaramba, for participating in the Rwandan genocide. He has also worked for the Hague War Crimes Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia as head of the investigation team and as a trainer of the Frontier Guard in the fight against human trafficking.

Elfgren is a well known expert and trainer in the profiling of violent criminals and special methods of crime prevention.

When in Rwanda, Mr. Elfgren adopted six local children.

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