Freedom, yes -- but standards, too

 “TOTALITARIANISM” George Orwell wrote in a 1946 essay entitled The Prevention of Literature, “demands...the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.” 
Phil Quin
Phil Quin

“TOTALITARIANISM” George Orwell wrote in a 1946 essay entitled The Prevention of Literature, “demands...the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.” 

Orwell, author of the novels Animal Farm and 1984, was referring to the blind refusal of communists in post-war Europe to acknowledge the horrors that were taking place under Stalin and insist on a more acceptable fiction instead.  

“There are countless people,” he wrote in the same essay “who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying an historical fact.”

But, were he alive today, it would surely take Orwell no more than a few seconds to see this same impulse alive and well, and present in abundance among Rwanda’s critics.  

Robert Mukombozi, a man who poses as a ‘crusading journalist’ and calls himself the “voice of Rwanda” wrote a news story two weeks ago claiming that the Queen of England “confronted” President Kagame during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia. Further, this self-proclaimed journalist “reported” that similar meetings took place with Australia’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.   

These are falsifiable claims. These meetings either took place as the “journalist” proclaimed, or they did not. 

Of course, no such “confrontations” took place, nor did anything remotely resembling them.  In fact, my Aussie friends who were in Perth for CHOGM tell me that President Kagame was warmly welcomed wherever he went, especially by his Australian hosts. No African leader enjoyed a more positive profile 

The originator of this falsehood knew this of course, which is why it is worse than a casual untruth or a lazy error of fact.

It is a consciously fabricated lie dressed up as reportage for the purpose of claiming political advantage. Another word for this is propaganda.

It is common among Rwanda’s critics to fling terms like “freedom of speech” around cyberspace like rhetorical confetti, and yet they seem to believe that this freedom carries no obligations with respect to the truth.   Forgive me for quoting Orwell again, but there is no voice more compelling on the subject: 

"Freedom of the intellect means the freedom to report what one has seen, heard, and felt, and not to be obliged to fabricate imaginary facts and feelings."

Orwell understood that integrity and adherence to truth are integral to freedom.  Without them, the public square descends into a rhetorical free-for-all wherein anyone is entitled to invent whichever version of history or set of ‘facts’ best suits his political purpose.  

Paul Rusesabigana is a useful case in point.  The so-called Hotel Rwanda “hero” has made a career on the international speaker circuit out of fictionalizing history. He has relied on the willingness of Western audiences to close their eyes and imagine he is Don Cheadle and life really is a movie. But when events conspire to shed light on the actual circumstances of his so-called heroism in 1994, life becomes exponentially more uncomfortable for Rusesabigana and his cohorts.  

This has been the case in recent days after IBUKA and others have rallied against the ill-informed decision of the Lantos Foundation in the US to award him a humanitarian prize, clearly without vetting him.  Rusesabagina’s reputation rests on tenuous foundations and soon topples over with the faintest gust of scrutiny.  

Just ask the ICTR prosecutors who rejected his claims as baseless ‘hearsay”, or the UK judge who dismissed him as an unreliable extremist, or the US government who, as Wikileaks cables revealed, have long regarded him as a
purveyor of self-serving, politically motivated propaganda.  

Orwell makes the case for an ethical public discourse, specifically in journalism. Freedom, yes -- but standards, too.  

Rwanda’s opponents have long surrendered any semblance of restraint when it comes to spreading their fictions.  No lie is too big, no accusation too low.  As long as this is the case, their ability to make a useful contribution to the debate about Rwanda's future - let alone its past - will remain at zero.

The author is a writer and blogger currently living in Kigali,
www.thenewtasman.com

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