A failure of journalism

Report on the LSE/Polis talk "Media and Identity: Reporting the Rwandan Genocide"

Guest post by Samira Shackle

Rwanda is in the slow process of recovery. The tiny landlocked nation has been in the headlines this week after entering the Commonwealth and resuming diplomatic relations with France. But the scars of the 1994 genocide of up to a million ethnic Tutsis have yet to heal. It is vital that the media learn from their mistakes in the region, which were explored at a Polis talk last night at the London School of Economics.

In discussion with Lindsey Hilsum, who was the only British journalist in Kigali as events unfolded in 1994, were two genocide survivors. Serge Rwigamba gave his story, his measured voice belying the horror he has lived through. He told how his family sheltered in a church, how militiamen attacked the chapel on 21 April 1994, the same day as the UN voted to withdraw its peacekeeping force, and how his father and brother were killed.

Patrick Iregura, another survivor, discussed the role of the international media. His speech resonated with a powerful sense of injustice, his tone one of controlled anger. "I am not an expert," he said. "I do not know how the media make their priorities. It is too much for me to understand why the genocide was treated as a trivial argument. Why ignore one million people being killed?" He discussed the unequal distribution of coverage, recalling how the world's media later descended on refugee camps in Goma, populated largely by Hutus fleeing from the rebel RPF army. The refugees included many perpetrators of genocide.

Hilsum described the "failure of journalism" in Rwanda, a failure in which she includes herself. Genocide, she said, was simply not on the radar of journalists at that time -- it had come up in relation to Cambodia and Bosnia, but war crimes were not in their consciousness. Moreover, the African story dominating the international agenda was the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa: the end of apartheid and the dawning of democracy. Quite simply, the media were slow to accept that there was another big story coming out of Africa. Picking up Iregura's point about the coverage of Goma, Hilsum emphasised that it was a familiar narrative: journalists could easily comprehend the idea of Africans fleeing, and thus the story was covered as a straight refugee crisis. The failure was in not joining the dots, looking beyond the familiar story to understand the enormity of what was taking place.

The story of Rwanda has since been chronicled, its events recorded in films and books. But it is vitally important that we learn from these: as Iregura argued, events should be reported as they happen. Speaking of the HIV crisis among women raped by members of the militia and the lack of coverage the matter has received, he said: "People will continue to die as a result of genocide, if it is not covered."

The rise of new media has, to an extent, helped reporters evade the logistical problems posed by repressive regimes, as shown by the use of mobile phones and social networking during the protests in Iran this year. But the closest equivalent to the events in Rwanda is the crisis in Darfur: another African massacre that went by, largely unreported. Clearly, lessons remain to be learned.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.