Monday 10 December 2007

Belgium Is Not Rwanda

From my Reuters AlertNet blog, 10 December 2007.


Blaming the media is an easy game every politician plays, but here in Belgium, it has just taken a step -- more like an enormous leap -- too far. After spending ages trying to form a government with no success, Yves Leterme, the Flemish Christian Democrat leader, lashed out at French-language state broadcaster RTBF, comparing it to Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda.

While Leterme's general state of frustration may be somewhat understandable -- today marks six months to the day since the general election in June, and still Belgium has no new government -- that can be no excuse for throwing perspective out the window as he did in an interview with Flemish newspaper Het Belang van Limburg on Saturday. It is an insult to the intelligence of the Belgian public and to the victims of Rwanda.

During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the private radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines was the "Hate Radio" inspiring Hutus to kill Tutsis en masse, using terms like "final war" and calling on listeners to "exterminate the cockroaches". The broadcaster was not just an appendage of the genocide; it was its nervous system, relaying commands and directly inciting murders.

Comparing the textbook example of media driving violent conflict to RTBF and the political discord in Belgium today is lunacy. Leterme may be angry with the Belgian broadcaster and may even blame it and its "political agenda" for complicating his attempts to form a government over the past half year. But please, let's not get crazy. This is Belgium 2007, not Rwanda 1994.

In fact, you'd hardly notice this country is going through much of a crisis at all. The schools still work well, the trash continues to be collected twice a week, the taxes are still too high, and the beer is as good as it ever was. The public debate in the media seems very calm and reasoned -- RTBF has even invited Leterme to discuss his comments on air. People are concerned about the future of their country, and indeed it may even split some day (I hope not though), but there is zero possibility of violence. And no one is encouraging it, least of all the media here.

The Association of Professional Journalists of Belgium has strongly condemned Leterme's comparison, and Belgian Radio and Television Minister Fadila Laanan has called it "abominable". Indeed.

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