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Broadcasting - Jon Silverman on why the BBC's attempt to overhaul the media in Rwanda failed

One of the first decisions taken by the United Nations after the liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban was to commission a needs assessment of what it would take to create a free and pluralist media in that war-scarred country. I wish it well. As far as knowledge or understanding of the world was concerned, the Afghan people had been cooped up in a windowless cell for half a decade. But letting in the light can be a shock to the system - and the experience of Rwanda, another state with a traumatic recent past, makes a cautionary tale.

The bald facts of the 1994 genocide are, by now, well known. In the space of 100 days, up to a million people - Tutsis and moderate Hutus - were slaughtered on the orders of an extremist clique that grabbed power after the assassination of the president. The speed and efficiency of the killing were unprecedented in modern times, a fact that has been attributed to the potency of the anti-Tutsi propaganda with which the country had been saturated in the years preceding 1994. And the supreme message-carrier was a private radio station, Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), which served up a cocktail of cool music and chat, laced with a Goebbels-style venom that many found too intoxicating to resist.

Two of the founders of RTLM are currently on trial for incitement to genocide at the war crimes tribunal for Rwanda, but whatever the verdict, the country is finding it difficult, perhaps impossible, to escape the shadow cast by the "hate media". And this is where Afghanistan should take note. For just as in Afghanistan, Clare Short's fiefdom, the Department for International Development, funded a project in Rwanda to create a media that could report on and interpret the world around it without being a slave to one set of political masters. And, as in Afghanistan, the BBC was invited to oversee the reshaping of the broadcast sector. But what was intended to be a three-year marriage ended in an abrupt separation when it became clear that British and Rwandan percep-tions of a "free and pluralist" media were so distinct as to be irreconcilable.

The turning point was undoubtedly the sacking of the editor of TV Rwanda for doing something that the Rwandan Office of Information (Orinfor) found unacceptable. His crime? To approve an editing shot in a news report that would be regarded as commonplace on UK television, but which, in a febrile, post-genocide climate, was taken as an act of subversion. The offending footage was an over-the-shoulder "cutaway" of the president, Paul Kagame, reading from a prayer book during a church service.

However, the cameraman caught the president's finger resting on a line of text. So what, you might say. Within minutes of the piece appearing on the nightly TV news, the phone lines from Orinfor were humming with furious charges that the president had been made to look as though he had difficulty reading. There was only one possible outcome to such a confrontation, and the hapless editor was out on his ear, with the message transmitted loud and clear to his colleagues: following the advice of BBC trainers, however well intentioned, could have untold consequences.

In Rwanda, politics and journalism have always been indivisible. The first president edited a newspaper under the Belgian colonial administration, and two of the media executives currently on trial for incitement to genocide were prominent Hutu politicians who ran a private radio station and a newspaper. Given the role played by RTLM in the genocide, the views of Rwanda's attorney general, Gerald Gahima, are understandable.

"The media should be held to certain professional and ethical standards, which, in the past, it has not. Even today, if you want a story published, you pay money and a journalist will publish it. We want journalists to know that their freedom is subject to certain responsibilities."

Fine. Except that this translates into a policy that, though ostensibly favourable to liberalising the media, has no intention of allowing genuine independence of thought. In the past year, the editor of the Rwanda Herald was expelled from the country, and the editor of an independent weekly, Umuseso (Newsline), was hauled in for interrogation by the police. When protests are made, the government cites the poison spread by RTLM as justification for maintaining its iron grip. But this really doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

"It's merely a pretext to practise a form of censorship," says Thomas Kamalindi, a former Radio Rwanda journalist who would have been the victim of a street- corner execution during the genocide, had it not been for the fortuitous intervention of an army major. "RTLM was a private station in name only. It was really an extension of the Hutu Power faction, which was the de facto government for those 100 days of genocide. What Rwanda desperately needs is a genuinely diverse media." It plainly does - and so does Afghanistan. But no one should under-estimate the forces that will do their best to block that laudable objective.

Jon Silverman travelled to Rwanda and Tanzania for the BBC World Service's Assignment programme