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2 December 2009updated 12 Oct 2023 10:41am

A failure of journalism

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

By Samira Shackle

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.

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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.

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