International media and the fight against genocide denial: View from global north

Last week on Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th April, the international media; printed, visual and social, initially produced a trickle, and then a steady flow of articles, guest panels, and discussion points surrounding Rwanda.

Kwibuka 25 was receiving global coverage, and that coverage has led to a troubling confirmation that genocide denial and revisionism is still a massive problem to be tackled.

I personally tried to challenge individuals on social media platforms and provide education and context in the hope that their initially flawed perspectives might be through mere naivety or ignorance, but sadly nearly all of those attempts seemed to end in either no further response, or further attempts by the author of those comments to reemphasise their potentially damaging stance.

There were, reassuringly a number of other social media users who would like the points I tried futilely to make to those original authors, but a seeming reluctance from any to step forward and comment further, perhaps in fear of conflict or for other unknown reasons.

Broadly speaking, the same themes amongst those commenting recurred time and time again across all media platforms: Ignoring Rwanda’s history, ignoring anything that happened prior to the death of President Habyarimana relating to the Arusha Accords (or in some cases using the civil war of 1990-1993 as the starting point), minimising any discussion of the genocide against the Tutsi to a few seconds before dedicating the majority of the discussion to criticism of the post-genocide Rwandan State or alleged actions of the RPF after July 1994, blurring the boundaries of all conflict in Rwanda / DRC between 1990 and 2000 and labelling them together as one single event, continued use of the label ‘Rwandan Genocide’ as opposed to ‘Genocide against the Tutsi’, and the infamous but – for example ‘Rwanda has progressed a long way but…’ or ‘Yes there was a genocide against the Tutsi but…’.

In other words, many would perhaps accept the reality of the genocide against the Tutsi, but only in a conditional or qualified context. And then of course, there were those that outright deny the genocide or provide other revisionist theories of double genocide, blame the victims of the genocide for their own victimisation, or simply downplayed the horrific realities of genocide.

To be clear, these issues were not solely found on social media, rather often they could be found in mainstream mass media too. For example, an article in the Economist titled ‘How well has Rwanda healed 25 years after the genocide?’ (with a second title of ‘We’re just one happy family now, aren’t we?’ in some print editions), the author immediately constructed the sub heading ‘Not well enough, apparently, for President Paul Kagame to ease his grip’ before writing a series of confused and inaccurate contentions.

For example, the article discusses that an initial 120,000 génocidaires were imprisoned within a year of the genocide against the Tutsi’s ending, followed by a further eventual 300,000 as the justice process continued (making 420,000 imprisoned in total with the figures the article presents), before citing that today 46,000 are still in prison in Rwanda ‘most of them génocidaires’; a figure that the Economist’s social media team focused on when highlighting the article on Twitter.

Dr Phil Clark, who ironically had been quoted elsewhere in the article itself was quick to rebut and clarify that whilst 46,000 was the total number of convicts imprisoned in Rwanda today, that only approximately 20,000 of those are in fact génocidaires.

For the Economist to use as an argument to support their contention of a repressive and authoritarian approach to justice that 20,000 out of their presented 420,000 remain in prison is nothing short of bizarre.

It must be pointed out that this would represent just less than five percent of those convicted of genocide still being in prison having only been imprisoned for anywhere between 10 and 25 years, depending on when the trial against them took place, for the type of offences that were labelled by the panel of judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in the case against Jean Kambanda in 1998 as ‘the crime of crimes’.

The crime of genocide having been pre-defined by Raphael Lemkin and with a refined version of the definition contained within the  1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as being the commission of specific acts ‘with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’.

Can it really be said that there are any worse crimes than that which contains acts such as ‘killing members of the group; inflicting bodily or mental harm on members of the group; inflicting conditions of life; and; acts calculated to bring about the group’s destruction’ not to mention the further acts associated with effectively what would today be classed as trafficking of children?

When we add to the defined acts those of sexual violence and rape against members of the targeted group, confirmed as acts of genocide following the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu at the ICTR, also in 1998, it is astonishing that any credible source should attempt to levy accusations of an overly harsh justice system at this point in time based upon the figures quoted.

Indeed, if adopting a comparative approach, it should be noted that whereas in Rwanda, a ‘normal’ prison population of 26,000 for comparable offences to other jurisdictions (i.e. excluding figures for génocidaires) as a proportion of total country population (12.21 million) represents an adjusted figure of 213 people out of every 100,000 in prison, very comparable in Africa to Botswana (208) and Mauritius (211), and lower than South Africa (286), Cape Verde (298) and several other countries in Africa alone.

Yet these figures pale in comparison to some in South America; Uruguay (321) and Brazil (337), Asia; Maldives (499) and Thailand (529), Europe; Turkey (318), Belarus (343), Russia (386), before we get to the huge figure of 655 for the United States of America.

Taking the appropriately adjusted figure of 213 for rate of imprisonment in Rwanda this would place it 61st in the global rates of imprisonment recorded by World Prison Brief, moving it away from the current non-representative (including génocidaires) position of 10th.

So whereas Rwanda might not have as low proportions for imprisonment as some countries, when considering the correct context for the prison statistics in Rwanda it is disingenuous at best to describe its incarceration rate as anything other than normal.

Thomson Reuters Foundation News, who describe themselves within their own principles as being ‘dedicated to upholding the Trust Principles and to preserving its independence, integrity, and freedom from bias in the gathering and dissemination of information and news’, published a thread on their official Twitter feed using the hashtag #RwandaGenocide to ‘look at how it all unfolded’, and used a starting point of 1990 describing how the RPF ‘invaded northern Rwanda’.

This choice of language, as a linguist would attest to, cannot have been by accident – the term invade has common meanings (of an armed force) enter (a country or region) so as to subjugate or occupy it’ or ‘Enter (a place, situation, or sphere of activity) in large numbers, especially with intrusive effect’ (both Oxford English Dictionary); ‘entering a country with the intent of conquest or occupation’ (Collins English Dictionary); ‘an occasion when an army or country uses force to enter and take control of another country’ or ‘an occasion when a large number of people or things come to a place in an annoying and unwanted way’ (both Cambridge English Dictionary). In other words, the various definitions of the term invade have the effect of de-legitimising the group being labelled in that way in the minds of the reader, an interpretation that is being directed, intentional or otherwise, by the authors at Thomson Reuters.

Worryingly though, there are in fact further definitions that were omitted above to the term ‘invade’; to return to the Oxford English Dictionary the further definition given is ‘(of a parasite or disease) spread into (an organism or bodily part)’ and in Collins there is ‘penetrating with infective force; infesting’.

And so, again intentionally or otherwise, the specifically chosen language of ‘invaded’ also has the potential to further dehumanise in the minds of the reader in the very same way that much of the propaganda (for example inyenzi) leading to the genocide against the Tutsi did.

In the Thomson Reuters thread there was no mention of the mass violence perpetrated against the Tutsi population of Rwanda in 1959, 1963-64, or 1974. There was no mention of the decades of propaganda first under Kayibanda and then under Habyarimana, or of the preparations for genocide against the Tutsi that were uncovered and reported by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire  that were ignored.

There was no discussion of the death lists that were strategically circulated by the génocidaires throughout the early stages of the genocide, and in other words, there was no attempt at any point to situate the realities of the genocide against the Tutsi in their correct historical context.

The thread then closed with the last comments being on ‘Rwandan troops invaded neighbouring Congo in the 1990s to try and hunt down perpetrators of the genocide… estimated to have left over five million dead, mostly through hunger and disease’. So having started on labelling the current Rwandan State as being invaders, the thread closes in the same way, repeating and reinforcing that message.

It is at that point that it becomes difficult to conclude anything other than this being a deliberately constructed narrative. Even if unintentional however, the reality is that reporting in such a manner is highly irresponsible, lacking in integrity, and certainly not free from bias, all in clear breach of the publisher’s own guiding principles.

Sadly, even Heads of State, official accounts from major political institutions who will have several advisors whereby officially released statements should be subject to scrutiny prior to publication, as well as a number of major publishers and media corporations continued to repeat a flawed narrative.

Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’s Twitter account referred to the ‘Rwandan Genocide’, as did the Twitter feeds (referring to either the Rwandan Genocide or Rwanda Genocide without further reference to Tutsi in the title or context) of the European Commission, the Government of Nigeria, Time, BBC News Africa, France 24, Al Jazeera, Kenneth Roth (Human Rights Watch), Human Rights Watch itself (though if readers watched the attached video it did make the distinction), Bloomberg, ABC News, the Irish Foreign Ministry, and various others.

Such is the reach of those social media accounts, the danger is that the term ‘Rwandan Genocide’ continues to be used in favour of ‘Genocide against the Tutsi’. To some this might seem like a small issue, however as explained by Dr Alphonse Muleefu from the University of Rwanda in his blog post ‘Is freedom from fear a human right’ on 9th April he explained that; ‘The refusal to use the real name – the genocide against the Tutsi – is an implicit denial of its existence…calling the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, the “Rwandan genocide” or at worst the “Africa’s genocide”, is misleading and it wouldn’t be very difficult to prove that such statements are a veil of some elements of genocide denial’.

So whilst in some circumstances, the use of the term ‘Rwandan Genocide’ without clear expression of the Tutsi within the title might in many individual cases stem from naivety or ignorance, however particularly in the cases of those large-scale political or media corporations where there is an explicit responsibility to convey accurate information, omitting to use the correct terminology of ‘Genocide against the Tutsi’ becomes less forgivable.

This has simply been a snapshot into the problematic international reporting and discussion that has emerged since the beginning of Kwibuka 25 a few days ago, but is indicative of a worrying pattern. Whilst it is concerning to see such irresponsibility or negative intentions toward Rwanda however, at least it is explicitly clear that the scale of the problem still to be addressed is a massive one.

The fight against genocide denial and revisionism must be continued by all citizens of Rwanda with vigour and effort through education and action.

Dr Allan T. Moore is a Programme Leader for Criminal Justice, University of the West of Scotland.

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