Rwanda: the unreal story made at the BBC

Outrage at a BBC documentary on Rwanda broadcast at the beginning of this month continues to grow. It is not only Rwandans, but other right-thinking people, including scholars, diplomats, journalists and those who know the country well, who have been infuriated by a reckless, callous and cynical rewriting of history. They have good reason to be outraged.

The documentary, so-called Rwanda’s untold story, actually inverts the real story that Rwandans have lived and others witnessed, and told many times even by the BBC.

According to this inverted story, victims of one of the most vicious genocides in human history become demons; heroes turn into villains and the real criminals are washed clean of their horrendous deeds.

The story revises the composition of the population of Rwanda. It reduces the number of Tutsi, effectively rendering them non-existent. The aim is clear. If they did not exist, they could not have been killed. The genocide did not happen. It is a lie.

There cannot be a more unequivocal denial of the genocide of the Tutsi than that.

The outrage is therefore understandable. But less so are the shock, disappointment and surprise that have also been expressed. No one should be surprised at all because this is not the first time the BBC or any other major global media outlet has sought to rewrite Rwanda’s history.

For more than a decade now, since the introduction of Kinyarwanda language service, the BBC has periodically put out stories that seek to deny or trivialize the genocide of the Tutsi. The Kinyarwanda language current affairs talk show, Imvo n’Imvano, hosted by Ali Yusuf Mugenzi, is particularly well-known for this tendency.

He regularly lines up well-known detractors of the Government of Rwanda, Genocide deniers, apologists of genocidaires and other biased people to debate events and trends in post-Genocide Rwanda. Sometimes they discuss pre-Genocide Rwanda but always with a slant that aims to absolve perpetrators of any responsibility.

Imvo n’Imvano targets ordinary Rwandans and aims to sow doubts in their minds and influence their thinking.  Its broader direction has always been clear: to revise Rwanda’s recent history, divert attention from malefactors of the period and create a new narrative in which victims turn perpetrators, heroes are vilified and villains are glorified. It is inversion all over again.

Indeed about six years ago, the Government of Rwanda banned the BBC for a few months for these very reasons. Even when it was reinstated, government officials refused to participate in its Kinyarwanda language programmes.

But even the World Service of the BBC with a more global audience has not been totally free of blame either. For instance, at the height of the M23 rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the BBC and other global media outdid each other in presenting Rwanda and its leadership as the criminals in a conflict fuelled from capitals far from the scene. To prove Rwanda’s involvement in the conflict, they paraded individuals claiming to be Rwandans sent to fight alongside M23 rebels.

As it turned out, these were imposters, recruited, bribed and coached by some NGOs and rights groups to frame Rwanda. The BBC and other media were happy to report their claims and give them a stamp of approval without ever bothering to cross-check and establish the truth.

Let me be fair to the BBC and play devil’s advocate. Its lapses can be explained in some way. Today’s instant broadcast news media is a cutthroat business. There is little time for the painstaking, thorough, factual checks that were the hallmarks of the BBC. Everyone rushes for the spectacular in order to have an edge over rivals.

That may be true for “hard” or “breaking” news, but surely not for documentaries which do not have a time constraint. By and large, the BBC has maintained a respectable news reporting reputation. It is in the special programmes, such as documentaries, that it has been found wanting. Most of these are sub-contracted to independent producers and presumably not subjected to the same legendary BBC standards.

But is this enough excuse for laxity? Hardly. What it amounts to is an abdication of responsibility, and for an organisation that has built its corporate image on factual reporting, that simply won’t do.

So it is fair to say that the BBC has traded excellence for marketplace success. It has joined the crowd of screaming headlines and sensational stories. In this sense, it has vacated the lofty professional and moral position as the paragon of fairness, objectivity, impartiality and truth. Moreover these are the same qualities that the British have cultivated over the centuries as their distinctive national values.

In telling an untruthful story about Rwanda, whose more appropriate title should have been: Rwanda: the unreal story made at the BBC, the broadcaster has betrayed its core corporate and British national values. It has caused untold pain and injustice to victims of the most horrendous crime – genocide – and insulted a nation.

Once upon a time British missionaries came to these parts preaching repentance in order to earn forgiveness and abode in a place of eternal bliss. One hopes that where those worthy men came from, there is still enough of that spirit to seek pardon for what may even be mere lapses. It can still be done. Just be contrite and you will be forgiven.