The New York Times fixation with fiction

“Not long ago, Mr. Rusesabagina was the toast of America, feted by Oprah Winfrey, awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom” a recent New York Times (NYT) article that brought together four journalists to cover the story of a man who recorded himself declaring war on Rwanda only to later tell one of the journalists that he couldn’t recall recording the video – reported. If one would do a shoddy job, four would be thorough. Not so much.

Let’s start with the assertion that Rusesabagina was once “the world’s most famous Rwandan.” They are not wrong. After all, this is a man who benefited from the megaphone that is Hollywood. However, it is one thing to promote a movie, and quite another to differentiate Hollywood fiction from reality. This is the problem with the reporters, and they ought not to project this confusion to those who know the difference, like Rwandans who were in the hotel upon which the movie was based. As matter of fact, through survivors’ testimonies and those of UNAMIR soldiers present at the time, the fictitious hero version of Rusesabagina was widely discredited by serious investigative journalists such as Linda Melvern through writings and interviews, former UNAMIR soldier Amadou Deme through an article published in 2006 and researchers such as Jos Van Oijen through a recent publication.

 

This failure to differentiate fiction from reality has led the quartet to defend the ‘Hollywood hero’ to the extent of subscribing to his logic that using “any means possible,” as Rusesabaina says in the video, including the most heinous and violent means against innocent civilians, is somehow acceptable and represents “dissent.”

 

By subscribing to this bizarre logic, the journalists suppress the incriminating evidence against Rusesabagina in order to keep alive the hero and freedom fighter narrative.

 

Imagine journalism that suppresses inconvenient information. Can’t be professional journalism, can it? Genuine journalists committed to seeking the truth wouldn’t fail to challenge Rusesabagina’s denials of his terror organisation, when a video is on the internet with him claiming responsibility for military attacks that deliberately targeted civilians and left at least nine dead and announced future violence in order to speed up what he called “the liberation struggle”.

Neither, would these journalists – four of them – fail to authenticate such a video and challenge Rusesabagina’s claim that he does not remember recording it. On the contrary, credible journalists would ask if the targeting and killing of civilians as well as the recording were part of Rusesabagina’s campaign “to awaken the international community through diplomacy,” as he states in the interview with the NYT.

Moreover, had the NYT journalists been committed to telling the truth, they wouldn’t reframe the responsibility of Rusesabagina’s armed group as mere government’s allegations when both Rusesabagina, as the leader and founder of MRCD and its armed wing FLN and the spokesperson of the armed wing, Callixte Nsabimina, who is also in court for similar charges, claimed responsibility for these attacks and even apologised for them. Serious journalists would ask why someone who had apologised for the crimes wasn’t pleading guilty already, for instance.

Nsabimana who was extradited to Rwanda in April 2020 pleaded guilty for these acts and repeatedly asked for forgiveness. His boss, Rusesabagina has admitted his involvement but refused to plead guilty as he argued, in court, that he hadn’t ordered the killing of civilians. “It was not their (the killers) mission to kill civilians,” Rusesabagina said.

At the very least, Rusesabagina acknowledged that he had given the assailants a mission. Serious journalists would have Rusesabagina why he believes he doesn’t bear leadership responsibility if in fact he acknowledges having sent his assailants on a mission. Latif Dahir, one of the NYT journalists present during the hearing, concealed this critical information from his readers. He also failed to mention that some of the evidence used against Rusesabagina had been provided by Belgium’s law enforcement authorities. Going by the rate of omissions, it is as if Latif is on a mission.

Obviously, if the NYT’s journalists were not committed to keeping the movie fiction alive it wouldn’t be so invested in sanitizing the terror suspect. Neither would its journalists suggest that Rusesabagina was speaking under duress because he was speaking in the presence of state agents during the interview. “I was tied up and blindfolded for three days,” Rusesabagina said. Inquisitive journalists, obviously not the NYT’s quartet, would ask why Rusesabagina, who they suspect was speaking under duress, still refused to plead guilty.

Dahir, who interviewed survivors and witnesses in Nyabimata, could have scrutinized their stories to confirm or refute statements issued in 2018 by Rwanda’s security institutions claiming that FLN killers attacked from Burundi, the same country that Rusebagina was heading to. Indeed, if he wanted to, Dahir could have attempted to connect these dots. Instead, he sprinkled the witness testimonies here and there while remaining gripped on his fiction movie.

Further still, Dahir could have investigated the mysterious ‘bishop’ whose name Rusesabagina had a hard time recalling as he stammered his way out of a delicate moment. Dahir isn’t even curious how this mysterious bishop happened to have the financial means to charter a private jet for his Hollywood guest. He doesn’t prod from Rusesabagina regarding this filthy bishop with means that only a head of state can have in this neck of the woods, a connection that would explain the audacity to take on the risk of traveling so close to Rwanda given that he had been on the run for so long. In other words, in whose assurance would he make such a trip?

Everything is there, for a serious reporter – let alone four – to connect the dots. But they chose fiction over the reputation of the New York Times as a credible newspaper.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

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