Genocide in Rwanda: Media complicity in the killing

The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre

Twenty two years ago today, Genocide visited Rwanda.

How complicit was the media in the events that resulted in nearly one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu being slaughter in slightly less than 100 days?

A rate of killing that even Nazi Germany’s industrial murder machine would be hard pushed to match.

For the domestic media the evidence is irrefutable but for the international media complicity is a hard and indeed harsh charge to make stick.

What they were guilty of is indifference to one of the great tragedies of the 20th century.

Reflecting on the extent of the horror the UN commander in Rwanda at the time Canadian General Romeo Dallaire said:

“If I was unsure before, I now know that God must exist because I have shaken hands with the devil himself.”

Surely the international media could have galvanised international opinion more effectively to stop the killing?

Indifference and disinterest is no crime but the way the Genocide was reported raised some uneasy questions about news values and what western audiences value as news.

In developing countries where the media infrastructure is limited and large sections of the population are illiterate radio is king.

They are relatively cheap to buy and cheap to run as opposed to TV stations, radio programmes can be easily and quickly produced compared to their visual equivalent.

In such circumstances radio as a communications medium has the ability to reach as good as a saturation audience, making it the ideal propaganda tool.

The domestic media in Rwanda was able to galvanise massive sectors of the population to commit acts of indescribable evil.

This ability was exploited to the full by the Hutu Rwandan government in the run up to 1994 and played an integral part in organising inspiring and directing ordinary people to carry out monstrous crimes against their neighbours.

After the RPF invasion 1990 the government decided that the only way that they would have a free reign to rule Rwanda would be to wipe out their bitter Tutsi enemies forever so planning began for their version of the Final Solution.

Central to these plans were detailed census mapping of where Tutsi lived so when the time came for action it would be focused and swift. But the foundation of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in the capital Kigali was to play a central part as well.

The use of radio as propaganda weapon is nothing new Lord Haw Haw was a nightly feature of radio during WWII urging Britain to surrender. Tokyo Rose did the same job. And during the Vietnam War Hanoi Hannah was a nightly presence for GIs in jungle.

What is different about Radio Mille Colline is that it was not a random broadcasts railing against enemies it used targeted racist propaganda to whip up the population creating an atmosphere that allowed the genocide to occur. It is no exaggeration to say that without the role played by Radio Mille Colline it is unlikely that it genocide would a have generated anything like the severity that it did.

Widely listened to by the general population, it projected racist propaganda against Tutsis, moderate Hutus, Belgians, and the United Nations

It used a potent mixture of popular music and humour to attract a young audience interspersed with anti Tutsi propaganda and quickly developed a faithful audience among youth-aged Rwandans, who later made up the bulk of the Interahamwe militia.

The extent of their complicity is amply illustrated in that Radio Mille Colline was the station used to announce the start of the killing following the downing of the President’s plane. The code words being

“cut down the tall trees”

Within hours of this being broadcast road blocks appeared in a systematic way across the country and the planned killing began

Throughout the genocide the station was used to direct Interanhwe in their killing and used to broadcast false information to Tutsi’s.

For instance in Kibuyi the east of the country it was broadcast that this would be a safe zone for Tutsi refugees and urged them to head for this area for safety.

However, once there they discovered that this was merely a ploy by the government to round them all up in one place to make the killing easier.

More than 6000 people were killed in the Church in Kibuye the vast majority by machete.

Such was the extent of the intensity of the killing that the genocidaires could not physically finish everyone off. One witness survivor reports state that before breaking off after their days ‘work’ the genocidiares too tired to continue the killing would cut the achillies tendons of those still alive so they would be easy to find and finish off the next day before heading off for a leisurely evening back with their families.

In 2000 the station director, editor and producers were all found guilty of inciting crimes against humanity at the international Court of Justice in Arusha Tanzania. The court set up to deal with leaders of the genocide.

But radio was not the only media weapon, the printed word also played its part.

KANGURA was established in 1990 with the same aims of stoking anti TUTSI hatred.

Its propaganda was passed by word-of-mouth through the largely illiterate rural population. It was read out at public meetings and, as the genocide approached, during Interahamwe militia rallies.

It was published twice a month financed largely by the military and printed on government presses.

Kangura was key in fomenting extremism it was described by General Dalliare as a “scurrilous extremist rag”.

It was the magazine that devised the “Hutu Ten Commandments”, which decreed that Hutus who interacted with Tutsis were traitors. And backed the view that it was the Tutsi who were intent on wiping out the Hutus and that they had to strike first at every opportunity.

It was the magazine that promoted widespread use of the term INYENZI to describe Tutsi, literally meaning cockroach.

The editor was arrested in 1997 sentenced to life imprisonment. The first time a media organization was held responsible for inciting genocide since Nuremburg.

After the end of the genocide the new RPF government closed down all media and it only recently getting back on its feet but is still tightly controlled.

So much for domestic media but how was the Genocide covered in the international media. Why weren’t they galvanising millions of people to stop the killing in a similar way that Michael Burkes report on Ethiopia in 1984 resulted in millions of pounds in aid to that starving country.

There is a term among media academics to describe the way most of us interact with news today it’s called ‘oh dearism’ and it started during the Genocide of 1994.

Throughout the growth of TV news coverage over the past 40 years there was always two sides to a story.

The cold war – Western capitalism against these communists. Vietnam brave Americas against these reds. The Falklands plucky Brits against these Argentinean invaders. The IRA against the government.

There was always a victim and a perpetrator.

The highpoint of this type of reporting was the aforementioned Michael Burke report from Ethiopia in 1984. The victims the starving – the perpetrator the drought.

Unfortunately this was also the turning point for serious political analysis of complex and difficult to understand situations.

By sticking to a simple sympathy reporting – looking at the victims’ plight TV news was taking the easy option.

The drought quoted as the reason for the disaster was only part of the problem. But there was little coverage of the real politik of the situation that kept these people hunger, mainly the ongoing war with Eritrea.

For example there was no reporting of a Medicine San Frontier investigation that said a lot of the aid was used by the government as a resource to continue the war against Eritria for a further six years probably resulting in more deaths than the donated aid saved.

Why was it not reported ? Well it was probably deemed to be too complex and turn off for viewers increasingly spoon fed soundbite news. To say nothing of spoiling the viewers feelgood factor after they dug so deep to save so many, or so they thought.

The coverage from Rwanda in 1994 was the ultimate ‘oh dearism’

The time western media got round to covering what was happening in Rwanda it was virtually over and the coverage was concentrated on the refugee crisis that had spilled out into the Congo.

When they discovered that among the fleeing Hutu refugees were thousands of Interamwe killers and that these weren’t helpless victims at all, that the whole situation become muddy.

When the RPF invaded looking for these Hutu war criminals, and to be fair perpetrating some pretty nasty war crimes themselves, the whole situation became too clouded for the new currency of news media – soundbites.

There was no longer two sides to a story one involving victims that viewers could buy into, there was no longer good or bad. There was just bad.

This ‘oh dearism’ could also be described as out of site out of mind.

Journalism school told me that news is anything that’s new, anything that people want to hear about.

To an extent this is true, but another just as important aspect of news value is tapping into what your audience can relate to.

This is the major stumbling block with reporting African news not just from Rwanda – familiarity.

Getting people to relate to a starving African who’s family has been brutally murdered and who’s mother died of AIDS is for your average viewer beyond their comprehension. For your average viewer they would be as well trying to relate to green men on Mars. No familiarity, limited mass audience interest – result no TV coverage.

In one of the main movies made about the Genocide ‘Shooting Dogs’ there is a scene when a news reporter, despite the carnage she witnesses remains detached in a way that she wasn’t when covering the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.

The reason she gives, in the Balkans: ‘all the old people reminded me of my grandparents’

Familiarity, she felt a connection there that she just didn’t in Rwanda and that goes for viewers as well.

For American media, a force so powerful in swaying public opinion worldwide their lack of interest in what was happening in Rwanda was compounded by their experiences in Somalia a year earlier in 1993.

There was more US TV coverage of the US Marines landing on the beach at Mogadishu than there was of the whole of the Rwandan genocide.

Their humiliating withdrawal sensationalised in the movie Black Hawk Down lessened the US government’s appetite for intervention in Africa, and with it the media’s interest in what was going on there.

No heroics from home town boys to increase their audiences feel good factor, so no coverage.

If it had been labelled as genocide from the start then this might have been different. Genocide is such an emotive term that it would have galvanised even a dumbed down media to cover it.

But the UN refused to use this term until after the fact – so it was labelled just another tribal disturbance in darkest Africa of limited relevance to western audiences.

The main reason for this was that under the UN constitution the organisation is required to take action to stop a genocide by denying the fact it was happening, gave them an convenient excuse not to intervene, coming back again primarily from the US getting their fingers burned a year earlier.

As any intervention would be built around their contribution in men, money and equipment.

The only people who did intervene unilaterally and really started international media coverage were the French.

Although their motives as it transpired after the event were at the very least questionable.

The French had provided the Hutu-dominated Habiyarimana government with extensive military, and diplomatic support, including training and equipping the Interahamwe.

In June at the height of the killing the French government made an announcement of their intentions to organise, establish and maintain, a “safe zone”, in the south-west of Rwanda. Operation Turquoise.

The French said the objectives of the operation was to provide a zone where civilians of whatever ethnicity could come for protection from the fighting.

They sent 2500 troops with helicopter and armoured support all covered extensively by French media – familiarity again as soon as there is a connection media are interested

There was an immediate evacuation of the population westward.

However, by this time the Hutu government was losing ground to RPF and seeing the writing on the wall they too moved westwards to the safe zone taking with them the transmitter of Radio Mille Colline which they continued to broadcast from within the Turquoise zone

The French did nothing to detain those government officials that they knew had helped coordinate the genocide.

When asked to explain that in the French parliament, the French foreign minister of the time argued that the French had no jurisdiction to investigate or arrest suspected war criminals.

The reality was it was essentially used as a corridor for those responsible for organising the genocide to escape into the Congo.

Whether the French were actively trying to shelter their former allies or simply trying to shore up their waning influence in the region has been widely debated.

But what is clear is among this horror there was the absurdity of a major behind the scenes power play between France still looking to influence events in the region on one hand and the CIA backed RPF on the other.

With Rwandan the mere pawn in the middle.

The main accusations against Operation Turquoise is that it simply propped up the genocidal Hutu regime and that its mandate undermined belated attempts by the UN to halt the killing.

Even today there estimated to be dozens of wanted war criminals hiding out in France who used Operation Turquoise to escape justice.

A situation that is only recently began to be acted on since President Hollande took office.

When the international community did eventually get to acting after it was all too late, the media coverage of the situation increased as well.

BBC crews can be seen flying around in military helicopters visiting British Army Hospitals treating fleeing refugees and Royal Engineers rebuilding bridges.

Here’s the same old story – familiarity and the ability to simplify the story. Here’s the British Army helping to save fleeing refugees, very little about how they became refugees in the first place.

It’s all about what viewer listeners and readers can relate to not necessarily about the enormity and complexity of what’s going on.

A rape in your own city will be front page and on the six o’clock news. There’s an estimated 30,000 rapes still being carried out in Congo every month how much coverage is reported of that?

One of the radio stations when I was there ran an international awareness raising campaign on these very statistics.

How successful were they in generating any international coverage – not very.

Average viewers cannot comprehend what impact 30,000 rapes a month has on a community, I can’t.

It’s just a number ……..the people who set news agendas don’t comprehend it either, the result….it’s not on their radar.

Thankfully with the explosion of communications technology, if this tragedy happened again tomorrow it is unlikely to be ignored the way it was in 1994.

For all the pros and cons of social media, for that alone the world should be grateful.