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Will International Courts Investigate Pro-Trump Media?

Journalists who amplify the president’s most divisive rhetoric should consult history—and perhaps a lawyer.

by Neha Wadekar

This story was developed by Wadekar on the 2019 FASPE trip, with help from faculty. It was originally published by Foreign Policy on August 14, 2019.

Vermin, snakes, cockroaches, invaders—throughout history, politicians have used these words to describe people they’ve deemed unwelcome in their countries. But what happens when media outlets pick up this weaponized language, expand on it, and reverberate it throughout the nation? Are they, somehow, responsible for the outcomes that follow?

In the aftermath of multiple mass shootings, the United States is reeling with questions about rhetoric, accountability, and responsibility. The 21-year-old white man accused of opening fire in an El Paso Walmart on Aug. 3, killing at least 22 people and injuring dozens more, reportedly wrote a manifesto against Hispanic immigrants, claiming that his attack was a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Some have pointed to U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, specifically his repeated use of the word “invasion” to describe Central American migration, as inspiration for the acts. Trump, in turn, has blamed the media, accusing “fake news” of stoking national “anger and rage.”

The accusation is grossly unfair for most media outlets. But perhaps not for some, which have adopted the president’s hateful rhetoric, built on it, and repeated it until it became true to their viewers. Studies have found that Trump’s hateful rhetoric could be correlated with an increase in hate crimes across the country. Condoning Trump’s words only strengthens the power of his message.

This has happened before. In Germany, in the years leading up to World War II, and again in Rwanda, in the years before the Rwandan genocide, journalists used weaponized language and fearmongering tactics that created an “us versus them” mentality and ultimately contributed to mass violence. In both cases, international criminal courts held specific journalists accountable for the words they published and broadcast, finding them guilty of incitement in some of the most egregious crimes in human history.

The key to both was dehumanization: reducing people to a subhuman level and removing the individuality of those people. From there, mass extermination is an easier sell to a public desperate to protect its way of life from the influence of outsiders. The reporters’ artful crafting of “the other” helped convince people that Jews, in the case of World War II, and Tutsis, in the case of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, were subhuman groups that should be eliminated.

Today, journalists must consider whether the content that they are writing, publishing, and broadcasting creates, intentionally or inadvertently, an “other” that will ultimately incite violence.

The precedents set by landmark international cases are instructive. Der Stürmer, which means “the attacker,” was a Nazi propaganda newspaper founded and published by party member Julius Streicher from 1923 until the end of World War II. The tabloid paper was known for publishing incendiary, hate-filled content and had the power to influence masses, especially members of the lower class. As early as 1924, Der Stürmer caricatured Jews with large noses and misshapen bodies and portrayed them as vermin, snakes, or spiders to foster the image of Jewish people as the other.

Streicher was tried at Nuremberg, found guilty of crimes against humanity, and sentenced to death. “Streicher was widely known as ‘Jew-Baiter Number One’. In his speeches and articles, week after week, month after month, he infected the German mind with the virus of anti-Semitism, and incited the German People to active persecution,” the verdict read. “Streicher’s incitement to murder and extermination … constitutes a Crime against Humanity.”

According to legal experts, the Streicher case marked the first time in which the international community held a journalist responsible for violence that resulted from content that he published. “The Streicher case effectively set a precedent in international law for holding accountable media officials in inciting atrocity crimes, including genocide, although that term hadn’t been coined yet,” said Zachary D. Kaufman, an associate professor of law and political science at the University of Houston Law Center. In 1948, after Streicher’s execution, the United Nations adopted the Genocide Convention, which specified “[d]irect and public incitement to commit genocide” as an international crime.

The Streicher case became an important precursor to the international trials that would take place after the genocide in Rwanda. In the spring and summer of 1994, members of the Rwandan majority group, the Hutu, committed mass slaughter against the minority group, the Tutsi. As the world sat by and watched, between 500,000 and 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered, and tens of thousands more were mutilated and raped in their own villages. The genocide began the day after the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, and ended several months later with the victory of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front.

In the years leading up to the genocide, prominent Hutu leaders turned some radio stations and newspapers into propaganda machines. Similar to Der Stürmer in Nazi Germany, they used animal references to paint the Tutsi as the other, invoking the Kinyarwanda words inyenzi (cockroach) and inzoka (snake). They also portrayed the Tutsi as an external threat to a nationalist cause with the word ibyitso, meaning accomplices or traitors. This dehumanizing language helped facilitate the mass slaughter of up to 1 million innocent civilians in a country with a population of only 7 million.

In the aftermath, the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and incorporated the “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” language from the 1948 Genocide Convention into the ICTR’s statute. The court sentenced three media personalities—Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, Ferdinand Nahimana, and Hassan Ngeze—to 30-plus years’ prison time each, reduced from life imprisonment for Nahimana and Ngeze. Nahimana and Barayagwisa were both government ministers and founders of Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, the main independent radio station in Rwanda. Hassan Ngeze founded the widely circulated, alarmist newspaper Kangura, which means “awake,” in 1990. According to media analysts, Kangura used tactics similar to those of Der Stürmer: short sentences, repetition, simple vocabulary, and cartoonish imagery.

The trial marked the first time there was a media-related conviction on “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” crime. “Without a firearm, machete or any physical weapon, [Nahimana] caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians,” the judges wrote in their ruling. “The power of the media to create and destroy fundamental human values comes with great responsibility. Those who control such media are accountable for its consequences.”

There are legitimate concerns surrounding the crime of incitement in relation to journalism—that it could infringe on freedom of speech and expression and that it could be misused as a tool to stifle legitimate dissent.

But the United States already enforces some limits on freedom of speech. The 1969 Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio found that speech that supports law-breaking or violence is generally protected by the First Amendment unless it directly encourages people to immediately take an unlawful action. “From Nuremberg’s Streicher case and the ICTR’s media trial, we have a much better sense of the relationship between speech and violence,” Kaufman said. “The adage that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is not accurate. Words can cause harm. Serious harm.”

In the United States, we are seeing some of that harm unfolding. The El Paso gunman’s claim that his actions were a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” shows that words matter. But where did his notion of the “invasion” come from, and who, if anyone, is responsible for spreading this ideology?

The role of the media requires scrutiny. On Oct. 12, 2018, 25 days before the U.S. midterm elections, some 160 Hondurans left the town of San Pedro Sula—fleeing gang violence, conflict, poverty, and hunger—to seek asylum in the United States. Cable networks embarked on a coverage frenzy, as the caravan became a proxy for political battles in the midterms. According to a study conducted by Media Matters for America, a nonprofit that monitors and analyzes the U.S. media, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC spent a combined 15 hours covering the migrant caravan between Monday, Oct. 15, and Sunday, Oct. 21, creating a false sense of crisis in the country. Fox News dedicated nearly eight hours of airtime to the caravan. During that same period, CNN covered it for four and a half hours, and MSNBC covered it for two and a half hours.

The tone and tenor of the coverage varied between outlets. Media analysis of the coverage showed that CNN’s and MSNBC’s coverage spent time debunking Trump’s lies about the caravan and included interviews with migrants to make their struggles more relatable to viewers. Print outlets also covered the caravan heavily, but their coverage focused more on facts: giving their readers information about the caravan, the conditions that caused the migrants to flee, and the challenges of traveling north.

Prime-time Fox News programs, by contrast, often used the words “invasion” and “invaders” to describe asylum-seekers in the caravan and invoked military verbiage such as “rushing,” “storming,” and “marching” to invoke fear and anger in their viewers. “I don’t mean to be hyperbolic about it, but clearly what happened yesterday were people trying to invade our border,” said Dan Bongino, a Fox News commentator, when describing a scuffle between migrants and border patrol agents in November 2018.

The broadcasting of the term “invasion” seems to threaten “human values” in precisely the way that the Rwanda judgment warned about. After all, what invades? Armies invade. Swarms of insects invade. How do people respond to invasions? They want to repel them.

Fox News declined to comment for this story.

Of course, not all Fox News anchors use such dehumanizing rhetoric. On Oct. 29, 2018, Shepard Smith took to the air to deliver this message: “The migrants, according to Fox News reporting, are more than two months away if any of them actually come here. But tomorrow is one week before the midterm election, which is what all of this is about. There is no invasion. No one is coming to get you.”

Smith was correct. The caravan was not the existential threat that Trump and Fox News claimed. In the end, no invading army crossed America’s border. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, some migrants were intercepted by the Mexican government. Many failed to reach the United States, decided to stay in transit countries, or voluntarily returned to their countries of origin.

Meanwhile, the number of hate crime incidents reported to the FBI has been increasing since Trump’s election. FBI data from 2017 showed a 17 percent increase in hate crimes between 2016 and 2017. Half of the perpetrators were white, and 80 percent of the crimes were racially or religiously motivated. A recent study by researchers at the University of North Texas and Texas A&M University compared counties that held rallies for Trump in 2016 to counties that didn’t but were demographically similar to those that did. The researchers found a 226 percent rise in hate crimes in counties that hosted Trump’s rallies.

In continually repeating Trump’s sound bites and, in certain cases, supporting his rhetoric, some journalists have contributed to the dissemination of this hateful message. This appears to have contributed to the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic sentiment across the United States. We are still far off from any international trials to determine responsibility for potential incitement to violence. But the precedents show that reporters can and will be held accountable for the words they choose to use and for the outcomes that these words garner.

Neha Wadekar was a 2019 Journalism Fellow. She is a Nairobi-based journalist.