The Rwandan genocide may not have been industrialised murder in the manner of the Nazis, but it was orchestrated slaughter, the attempted eradication of the entire Tutsi race. So why didn’t the western media say so while it mattered, when something could still be done to save lives? Publications as venerable as the New York Times peddled the idea that it was tribal violence. The BBC’s reports led with the evacuation of stranded expats and talk of a renewed civil war between “tribal factions”.
It was pretty typical of the western media’s coverage of Africa: directed by a Heart of Darkness mentality and the assumption that slaughter is somehow intrinsic to the climate - an innate savagery with which the outsider may grapple, but never conquer.
Correspondents filed at length not about the well-documented and sustained campaign of anti-Tutsi extremism that Hutu Power had been building for several years, but of the “chaos” in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. And there was chaos. One of the handful of foreign correspondents who was in Rwanda from the beginning of the genocide recently wrote to me: “The air was thick with hot lead. This is not journalistic freehand. It was just like that. I have covered a few wars and I think I know a big one when I see it… While the air was thick, the ground was sticky with blood. Really. It was flowing in the gutters. I crossed Interahamwe roadblocks in the morning – just ‘a few’ bodies – then two hours later re-crossed the same ones – big piles. Like nothing I have ever seen.” This was the first week, before the killing escalated.
Many war reporters who were in Rwanda say that they witnessed the worst events of their lives. Given the severity of the conditions facing reporters, some of those dodging the bullets, and risking death at militia checkpoints on a daily basis in order to bring outsiders the truth, have objected to criticism of the western media’s culpability in the genocide. Their answer: we tried.
Editors gorge on the golden piles of bodies and refugees fleeing on tractors that buy bigger audiences.
The western media has arguably never been more culpable for failing to stop mass murder. Its reports of “chaos” intrigued western audiences battling with the mundanities of their own lives, allowing them to taste the bloodshed from their couch. But, unfortunately for Rwandans, it did not explain to everyone what was happening, why, or how it could be stopped. An international inquiry in 1996 found that the media had “contributed to international indifference and inaction” through “inadequate and inaccurate reporting” during the build-up and early days of the slaughter.
Even the respected BBC correspondent Mark Doyle admitted in 2003: “I was guilty of misinterpreting the situation. I spoke of chaos and indiscriminate killing, but gradually I learned with my own eyes that it was not chaotic, that it was far from indiscriminate.”
What happened in Rwanda was complicated, demanding more inquiry and dedication than some reporters – and almost all editors – cared for. In Africa under-resourced western media outlets employ a handful of “Africa specialists” forced to run from one war to another, following the scent of blood at the beck of their masters behind newsdesks in Europe or America. Historical context is hard to obtain when the bullets are flying. These editors gorge on the golden piles of bodies and refugees fleeing on tractors that buy bigger audiences. Bodies, refugees and famine are simple stories – stereotypical media-Africa that audiences easily understand.
The film’s inaccuracies begin there.
Politicians must not be allowed to wipe their hands of Rwandan blood by suggesting they would have acted had the media pressured them more. The UN, the Americans, the British, the Belgians, the French… all knew what would happen and were instrumental in international inaction. On 11 January 1994 – three months before the killings began in earnest – the head of the UN mission in Uganda, Major General Romeo Dallaire, fired an urgent fax to the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping (Head: Kofi Annan) in New York. Dallaire had a remarkable high-level Rwandan army source who accurately warned the UN that the army had been training and arming Interahamwe cells. Dallaire added in the fax, chillingly, that the informant “has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali. He suspects it is for their extermination. Example he gave is that in twenty minutes his personnel could kill up to a thousand Tutsis.” The general signed it, “Peux ce que veux. Allons’y.” (Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Let’s go.) Pretty clear.
Yet Annan’s office replied reminding him of his limited mandate: shots could be fired in defence only, not to save Rwandan lives. There was no will, as proved on 21 April when Dallaire told them he could stop the genocide with just 5,000 soldiers and a free hand to fight Hutu Power. That same day, at the behest of the UK and the US (paranoid after the Somalia intervention debacle), the UN Security Council passed a resolution slashing his force to 270 troops. The French continued to help arm the genocidal Rwandan army. The Belgians had withdrawn from the mess they helped create after the deaths of just 10 soldiers.
But none of this excuses the media’s failure to report what was going on. Even with Rwanda the media has not learnt. The BBC had the most respectable reporting record during the genocide (hardly an accolade), but has recently engaged in a risible historical revision of the ETO massacre. The film Shooting Dogs, billed as an “authentic recreation” of the killings at the school, offers us the characters of a British priest who protected the Rwandans and a BBC film crew who used the word genocide. But there was no priest at the school, no film crew in the country – and no BBC reporter mentioned genocide until 29 April 1994 (several spoke of systematic, planned, mass slaughter two weeks earlier). The film’s inaccuracies begin there.
Wasn’t the real story in Rwanda juicy enough for the BBC not to need to embellish it? Doesn’t the genocide, so pathetically documented by the western media in its build-up and early stages – despite the wealth of information on Hutu Power’s murderous intentions – deserve accurate portrayal a dozen years later?