Media in Rwanda – Reflections 20 years later

I’ve been anxiously anticipating this week since I returned from Rwanda nearly 10 months ago.

Genocide memorial where over 250,000 were buried in Rwanda's capital, Kigali.
Genocide memorial where over 250,000 were buried in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

While I’ll never forget the reflective faces and flowered memorials that marked the 19th anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide, somehow this year’s 20th mark has me even more tangled.

Somehow my mind irrationally accepts that the international community has not changed “only” 19 years after the systematic killing of over 800,000 Rwandans beginning April 7, 1994.

But 20 years–boy, shouldn’t we have learned by now?

Twenty years has me reflecting heavily on not only the legacy of the genocide, but also about the role of reporting in conflicts across the world. It was because of what I learned and saw in Rwanda that I became interested in reporting–and it’s failure during those 100 tragic days.

Fortunately, some reporters have given this some thought. Tom Giles covered the Rwandan genocide as producer for BBC News. He wrote a great article back in 2004 (Media failure over Rwanda’s genocide) where he tackled the accusations that media underplayed the horrors happening in Rwanda.

Educational poster at Kigali genocide memorial.
Educational poster at Kigali genocide memorial.

He admitted that media had missed an opportunity to lobby for action. He says, “What the viewers in London weren’t seeing in scale was what I saw in pictures arriving back in Nairobi – of corpses piled high, decaying skulls and skeletons, terribly-injured children.”

International media has also been accused of only reporting the reaction to the genocide–the spillover of thousands of Rwandan refugees, many of whom were evacuating following participation in the genocide.

Giles remembers, “London now wanted human stories from the camps, of getting aid to the refugees, of babies born in misery. It was clear even then that this was not a story of refugees or of some distant civil war but of a systematic genocide still being carried out. But it was hard to get this message across – this was a complicated story in a country few people had heard of. Refugees were, at least, a simpler issue.”

It is this quest for simplicity, for clean, tidy bows, and for money that I believe often puts truth on the back-burner.

Conflict isn’t tidy. It’s not always refugees and child soldiers, which the audience has become accustomed to seeing. The job for conflict reporters has become exceptionally difficult, as the enemy has transcended warlords and militias. For the First World, the enemy is desensitization.

As one would expect, the 20th anniversary has international media hubs buzzing about Rwanda’s incredible recovery, reconciliation, and hope. And while I, too, am inspired and moved by this, I have to wonder–in the face of conflict in Syria, CAR, and South Sudan–if we should not give more time to assess how the international community and global media has changed… If at all.

In the meantime, here are some of (in my opinion) the best pieces commemorating the genocide in Rwanda:

  • A Good Man in Rwanda. This article by BBC News follows one reporter’s memory of a brave Senegalese UN worker who managed to save hundreds of Rwandan lives.
  • Portraits of Reconciliation is a New York Times piece that photographs genocide forgiveness between perpetrators and the families of those they killed.
  • Rwanda wasn’t what I thought it would be. In this editorial, the reporter relives her 2012 arrival in Rwanda and how the country exceeded her expectations and proved to be so much  more than media had delivered.

Say a prayer or send good vibes to Rwanda this week.

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. – Desmond Tutu

– md

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