Laura in Rwanda

Laura is a senior journalism major in Meadows School of the Arts with minors in art history, photography and human rights. In August 2009 she is participating in the Human Rights Education Program trip to Rwanda, where the group will visit sites including the Nyarubuye Genocide Memorial and Urukundo Home for Children.

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Examining the media’s role in the Rwanda genocide

I first became aware of the Rwanda genocide during my sophomore year at SMU, in J. Richard Stevens’ Media Effects class.

It was this particular class that ultimately sparked my interest in human rights in general and, more specifically, genocide studies. Since then, I have applied these interests throughout my course of study at SMU – ranging from my photographic work to journalism pieces to art history papers.

While in Rick’s class, I wrote an extensive mid-term paper detailing the role the media played throughout the April 1994 genocide in Rwanda – a genocide in a country smaller than the state of Maryland. Here’s my paper:


Rwanda’s horrors

The 1994 Rwandan genocide presented one of the most horrific crimes against humanity since the Holocaust of World War II. In addition, it was also the first tragedy of its kind with the opportunity to be represented in full by the media. Also unique, the Rwandan genocide was heavily instigated by radio reports and sectarian reports within the country itself.

International media played a different role, providing lopsided and largely overdue coverage of the atrocities taking place. It is extremely important to analyze and explore media coverage both within Rwanda and the Western world in order to determine if, at all, Rwanda’s tragedy could have been avoided and what actions should have been taken in order to do so.

Before delving into the media and its coverage, learning about and understanding the full scope of what took place in a little-known African country over the course of a couple months in spring of 1994 can provide a sufficient basis for further study.

Tim Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, provides a disheartening description of what he witnessed while in Rwanda: “It was difficult for me to find words to describe what was happening. I had covered nearly 20 wars, but the usual cliches of death and destruction mocked Rwanda’s horrors. Furthermore, all the usual human and journalistic instincts to bring something important to the world’s attention shriveled in the face of what I was seeing and hearing.”

There were signs of genocide much in advance of April 1994, when it actually began. Obviously, these signs went unnoticed, although many scholars insist that the genocide was planned quite possibly even years before it actually took place. After the genocide began, members of the Tutsi ethnic group were killed at alarming rates. Nearly a million were killed in total with an estimated five to ten percent of Rwanda’s population dying in a five-week span from the second week of April to the third week of May.

Helen M. Hintjens writes that this was “one of the highest casualty rates of any population in history from non-natural causes.” Rwanda’s preventable genocide resulted in the unnecessary loss of lives of innocent men, women and children – all put to death for a reason that has still to be entirely resolved.

Rwandan media’s firestorm

While international media coverage, particularly in the Western world, was afforded every opportunity to take action against the genocide in Rwanda, they failed. However, even more alarming is the Rwandan coverage that instigated such a horrible crime against humanity.

Prior to the genocide, a popular radio station called Radio-Television Libre des Milles Collines, and further known as RTLM, predicted that “a little something” was going to happen in April. RTLM was well known for rabble-rousing broadcasts, promoting the murder and torture of innocent Tutsis.

Going even further, RTLM frequently broadcast fabricated reports – one of which even went as far as claiming that a Nairobi-based human rights organization had discovered a plan to kill Hutu politicians and start a reverse-genocide on the Hutu ethnic group.

Even though radio was the most prevalent Rwandan media of the genocide, print media did assist in the firestorm that the radio ignited. An extremist paper, Kangura, run by Hassan Ngeze, proprietor of RTLM, was notorious for its pieces that spewed hate for the Tutsis, often calling for their total extermination. The newspaper, which was published twice a month, was used in addition to RTLM broadcasts – both of which were intended to mobilize the Hutu and promote violence against the Tutsi.

Later, the U.N. Tribunal claimed that the paper “poisoned the minds of readers,” whereas the radio station actively participated in the call for their extermination, even going as far to call out the names of individuals that they were seeking. In many forms, Rwandan media was entirely responsible for uprooting preexisting racial tensions and transforming them into a full-blown genocide.

International media’s absence

International media played a very different, yet nearly nonexistent role, than that of the Rwandan press.

First of all, coverage of Africa in general posed quite the challenge to many news organizations at the time. President Mobutu Sese Seko was not welcoming to journalists and they were only allowed in with special invitation. Because of this, and several other reasons discussed here, one of the most horrific crimes of the 20th century failed to make headline news.

Very few U.S. newsgroups manage offices in Africa due to the difficulties that abound within the volatile continent. U.S. reporters knew little of the region, and coverage of the genocide proved no different than typical coverage of Africa, which often relied on stereotypes that were based on stories from other wartorn African countries – Uganda, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, for example.

Despite 800,000 dead, international media still remained reluctant to become involved. The risk to journalists was simply too much for most Western organizations to bear.

Richard Dowden describes Rwanda as being “unimportant” to most editors in Great Britain, and it is likely that those feelings were hardly isolated. A reporter for CNN, Gary Strieker, told Jo Ellen Fair that, without reporters around to cover South Africa’s elections, Rwanda might have received even less coverage.

The RTLM’s radio broadcasts received more coverage than the actual activities taking place in the country. The Washington Post was bold enough to quote a Rwandan radio broadcast that stated: “You cockroaches must know you are made of flesh! We won’t let you kill! We will kill you!” The Christian Science Monitor followed suit, quoting General Dallaire’s statement regarding RTLM broadcasts provoking the murder of Tutsis.

Coverage by the BBC was slightly more widespread, but still neglectful overall. Tom Giles, a BBC correspondent in Rwanda recalls seeing “towns and villages abandoned by the living, among them those soon to become infamous like Nyarubuye – with its church full of bodies.”

Even more horrifying however is Giles’ recollection that it was more than six weeks after the tragedy that viewers were exposed to such atrocities. Prior to the genocide and within days of the mysterious plane crash that killed President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi, The London Times neglected the obvious and ran feature pieces on the gorillas of Rwanda.

Looking back, this could have been perceived as a blessing, seeing as the knowledge of newsroom staff in London was limited to CNN viewership. The one BBC team that did venture into the primary killing zones were not even rewarded for their labors, as Giles recalls the Newnight team’s piece was dropped due to it being “too graphic” for viewers.

The Financial Times of London was equally squeamish, failing to send their correspondent in Nairobi to South Africa at all and refraining from sending her to Rwanda until a week after the collapse of the country.

Hateful propaganda

In many eyes, it was the French government who failed Rwanda the most, for two main reasons. First of all, initial media coverage of the genocide began in France before anywhere else. In addition, and quite possibly most important of all, Hutu forces – the group doing the killing – were trained by the French army.

On the rare occasion that the media did choose to give Rwanda full coverage, their coverage was rarely accurate.

Even though it may seem as though ethnic tensions were the primary instigator of the crisis, Hintjens is quick to note that the killings were actually a result of conflicts between two military forces – the Rwanda Patriotic Front and the Rwandan Armed Forces.

Despite this, the press missed the mark by covering Rwanda as a war of sorts, rather than a conflict. Reports were disjointed and frequently unrelated to each other. More often than not, reports often spoke of the conflicts a “typical African biblical catastrophes,” rather than something much, much more devastating.

The effects of Rwandan media were cataclysmic in many ways.

As mentioned earlier, the RTLM was notorious for their inciting broadcasts, which had the greatest effect of all on the genocide and its development. Youth gangs were widespread in Rwanda, and it is no coincidence that the format of the RTLM was meant to target these gangs in an already frayed society.

The RTLM yielded exceptional power within the country, and witnesses at the U.N. Tribunal believed its actions to be pre-planned, as a witness stated, “What RTLM did was to spread petrol through the country little by little, so that one day it would be to set fire to the whole country.”

To demonstrate the power that they elicited, Jamie Metzl describes a report the RTLM delivered: “When RTLM inaccurately announced that the Tutsi opposition force in Uganda had invaded and that Hutu should search for Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) infiltrators in particular neighborhoods, roadblocks were immediately established where requested.”

Media such as this spewed hateful propaganda throughout an already-struggling country. This only furthered sectarian violence within the state and virtually eliminated any possibility of the violence coming to a peaceful conclusion. Even the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur to the Commission on Human Rights, B.W. Ndiaye, believed that Radio Rwanda “played a pernicious role in instigating several massacres.”

Other nongovernmental organizations agreed with this assertion, and international media followed shortly thereafter, all coming to the conclusion that the radio was an extremely important component of the genocide that took place.

Fortunately, the U.N. Tribunal took to trial three radio executives. The Tribunal agreed with the media’s assertions, finding the defendants “guilty of genocide, direct and public incitement to genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, and two crimes against humanity (persecution and extermination).”

This was the first conviction of media executives for genocide since the Nuremberg tribunal of 1946.

‘Criminal accountability’

The Tribunal stated: “The nature of media is such that causation of killing and other acts of genocide will necessarily be effected by an immediately proximate cause in addition to the communication itself. This fact does not diminish the causation to be attributed to the media, or the criminal accountability of those responsible for the communication.”

However, these convictions bring about new risks to media – another effect caused by the initial RTLM broadcasts that brought about the whole debacle.

The New York Times editorial board presents the idea that countries that run under dictators will take it upon themselves to prosecute journalists who circulate facts and ideas that disagree with that of the government. The board goes on to cite a specific example, in Rwanda of all places, where journalists were detained for producing pieces that “incited sectarian behavior.”

The effects of the international media vary greatly from that of the Rwandan media, much of which can be attributed to the fact that most international media attempted to cover the facts – a stark contrast to the propaganda-ridden Rwandan news.

Much of the international media’s attempts were stunted simply by the plain fact that even the killings in the capital, Kigali, were widely unnoticed. In the United States specifically, the public was kept at a great distance from the majority of the conflict, keeping media effects at a minimum and also releasing the U.S. from the “complications of explanation.”

Oddly enough, even though the U.S. media was greatly lacking and therefore produced little effect, Rwandan media had a tremendous impact on the U.S. government, namely due to the fact that the government was presented with the opportunity to cut off, or “jam,” Rwandan radio broadcasts, namely those of the RTLM.

However, the U.S. ultimately decided against this for a multitude of reasons: mostly due to the difficulty and cost, little national benefit, political popularity and international law.

The U.S. was afraid that jamming would greatly interfere with the flow of information around the world and set an extremely hazardous precedent for other countries – allowing them the opportunity to interfere with satellites, television and at the time, the up-and-coming internet.

In addition, reluctance also stemmed from the fact that the U.S. was quick to jump on the Soviet bloc states for illegal jamming and did not wish to be seen in the same light.

Even though these reports and RTLM broadcasts received some coverage by CNN, the BBC and various print media outlets, they evoked little response of value from the world as a whole.

Failure to heal

Peter V. Jakobsen provides a valuable model of the effects of the media neglect that took place before and after the killings, explaining: “the media neglect of the pre- and post-violence phases has two unfortunate consequences from a conflict management perspective. First, it distorts the public’s perception of conflict prone countries and regions. Second, media focus on humanitarian suffering in the violence phase has contributed to a channeling of funds from long-term development projects aimed at preventing conflict from occurring or recurring to short-term emergency relief, although the latter is more cost-effective from a conflict management perspective.”

Despite the general lack of meaningful media contributing to an overall lack of action across the globe, several evocative pieces were broadcast later.

A Fergal Keane documentary about the killings at Nyarubuye, called Journey Into Darkness, was not released until June 27 – weeks after the killings ceased. Obviously, this and all that followed were broadcast much too late to prevent the tragedy.

The genocide in Rwanda and the aftermath is an extreme example of the power which media hold. Media were presented with two options – the option to hurt and the option to heal.

Sadly, the Rwandan media, which chose to hurt, was the one that succeeded. It is apparent that some of the options presented to international media and officials could have easily been used to mediate the conflict. Jamming is one such instance.

Like many others, Jamie Metzl declares that, while jamming would not necessarily have prevented the genocide entirely, as tensions were still high, it very well could have kept the strain on the country to a minimum, while also ridding the country of messages inciting people to violence.

In addition to the government, reporters failed in several ways, too. NGOs and humanitarian agencies were heavily relied on for reporting use, providing biased and inaccurate reports which only served the agency supplying the information – not the greater good of society.

Jakobsen’s explanation of the CNN effect is another model that is very much applicable to Rwanda’s crisis. Jakobsen explains that the causal mechanism of the CNN effect is usually conceived in the following way: media coverage (printed and televised) of suffering and atrocities leads to journalists and opinion leaders demanding that Western governments “do something,” leading to unbearable (public) pressure, finally leading to Western governments doing something.

Guilt and shame

In Rwanda, Jakobsen’s concept of the CNN effect failed on multiple levels.

First of all, media coverage in general was not widespread and lacked sufficient footage of all of the agonizing things that went on. While some journalists did demand governmental support, the media’s powers are limited, and journalists were not abundant enough to promote any radical movement of sorts. The public’s limited exposure rounds out the explanation as to why this effect failed Rwanda and journalists.

The few journalists who did make pleas for UN action did not walk away from the country unscathed. Tom Giles believes that many, including him, still carry the guilt and shame that came along with the media’s inaction during the conflict.

Looking through the accounts of journalists, media organizations, scholars and international governmental agencies provides a well-rounded, clear picture of what truly happened over the course of that haunting spring and summer.

Sadly enough, a lack of understanding and media disinterest resulted in apathy until hundreds of thousands were left for dead. Rwanda’s story is a prime example of the power journalists wield, sometimes even without their knowledge. Rwanda could have been brought to the public knowledge almost instantly; however, it was not.

Ted Koppel even offered insight as to why he felt Rwanda was so terribly neglected. Koppel said, ‘maybe it’s a natural outgrowth of the age of television, but we do prefer to keep our crises simple, stories with a definable beginning and a predictable end. If people are no longer dying at the rate of 2,000 a day, Rwanda slowly, inevitably, begins moving off our radar screens.”

Rwanda was extremely obtuse for many media followers and was too convoluted to even trace a distinguishable timeline. The reports of the press followed this trend, remaining equally disjointed and failing to produce any pressure on Western governments – pressure that potentially could have mitigated all that was taking place in the country.

Post-genocide, during the trial, questions were brought about in regard to the judge’s ruling. The lawyer for Hassan Ngeze, the main proprietor of RTLM, believed that the judgment was ‘a major setback for free speech and an invitation for dictators to close down any media outlet on the grounds it could provoke violence.”

After reviewing the horrors that took place, it is difficult to believe that anyone, attorney or not, could defend the actions of the RTLM.

Media responsibility

Unfortunately, Rwanda was just one of many horrific tragedies of the 20th century.

It differs in that it was a terribly neglected one that received a despicable amount of attention and support when it really mattered.

Reporters have been left haunted by images of what they have seen, smelled, and heard while in the country, but, to their benefit, questions have been raised – who is to decide the intent of a broadcast? What action is appropriate when entering a country torn asunder such as Rwanda? How much power do the media truly hold?

Most important, Rwanda proved that there is still a tremendous need for the press to discover the fine balance between reporting the news and responsibility as citizen, especially in the face of tremendous crimes.

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