Humankind is not a kind species. In fact, if we look at history, cruelty is more common than kindness. It is in our very nature to do evil and harder to do good, we are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over and every time we swear that we’ll never do it again, that we’ll learn from our mistakes but we never do.
There is a saying that “all it takes for wicked men to prosper is for the good to do nothing”.
15 years ago the ‘good’ of this world stood and did nothing as a million were slaughtered.
The Tutsi genocide of 1994 has the dubious distinction of being the first genocide carried out in full view of the global media; from the comfort of my sofa in UK I watched as channel 4 looped deliberately blurred images of children being hacked, of bloated bodies washing up on the sandy beaches of Uganda, of murderous thugs drunk on hate, and politicians openly inciting genocide.
The world stood numb as warning upon warning was given but they went unheeded; they sat still and convinced themselves that it wasn’t as bad as it looked, that this was just a tribal war and “normal” for Africa.
No doubt if the victims were white then it would have been a different story because the world of modern media is governed by what we call “news values”.
So when you talk about the role media of media vis-à-vis the genocide you have to understand both the role of media values and business practices.
The first myth is that modern media exists primarily to inform the public; it does not. The modern media exists to make profit, to sell advertising and brand products; the news is a product and ratings reflect just how many people are buying that product.
Channel 4 in the UK was the only channel to consistently cover the genocide, their main news is at 7 pm and they were getting complaints about showing hacked bodies during dinner time and their ratings probably went down during the genocide.
When one looks back at the time you see the reasons for sparse media coverage was in the values the western outlets use to determine what news is.
Frequency – the genocide was initially portrayed as ethnic violence, something all too common in Africa, it seems that is one of the few contexts that Africa appears in the news regularly.
It is seen as something inherent in our nature and all ethnic violence is seen in a general context without taking into account the historical factors involved in that particular conflict.
The Somali conflict and the “Black Hawk Down” story was at the fore of the minds of US officials when they determined not to intervene in Rwanda, even though Rwanda was totally different to Somalia.
The genocidal government at the time wanted this to be seen as random tribal violence so governments would be less likely to intervene.
Negativity – Bad news travels fast they say, but bad news has a finite period over which it can be effective. The period of three months made it hard to sustain this barrage of bad news; people either lose interest or even worse become desensitized.
The more a particular image is seen the less impact it has and soon people were able to eat their dinner while watching harrowing images of slaughter.
Unexpectedness – the initial momentum was generated by the bombing of the presidential plane, likely by Hutu extremists as the media stated at the time.
The next few days saw a gradual building up of pressure as militia moved into action in conjunction with the army to eliminate any obstacles.
At the time one could see a common thread running through events like the killing of the Prime Minister, the dismemberment of the Belgian Paratroopers but this wasn’t made clear at the time.
Ambiguity – the lines have to be clearly defined; who is the victim? And who is the perpetrator?
A State department official once remarked that foreign policy was often defined by the following process “Find out who is the good guy and who is the bad guy; then give aid to the good guy and bomb the bad guy.”
The lines were not clearly defined in Rwanda; nations were inclined to respect the sovereignty of Rwanda and the fact that France and Belgium supported the government bestowed respectability on the genocidal regime.
Personalisation – This is the most important aspect of news values; a media professor once remarked “News is not what happens to other people, it is what happens to you.”
The extent to which someone can personalise a story determines the extent to which you care. Emotional investment determines the outcome in many cases; if you can look into the eyes of a starving child and see your own child then you are more inclined to help.
People care more for people who look like themselves with similar background to themselves; white people identify with whites, and blacks with blacks.
Meaningfulness – this is the result of the personalisation of a particular story. The biggest question a person 10,000 miles away asks themselves is “what has people killing innocent people in Rwanda got to do with me?”
Life goes on, one still goes to work in the morning, traffic is still stuck for hours and people are still focussed on their minor problems, particularly in the West where people are self-sufficient and self-absorbed.
The cultural proximity of a conflict is important to help a nation personalise a conflict; hence the Iraq war was seen as a war to protect the west from terror and matters like democratisation of the middle-East were seen as secondary.
References to elite nations/persons – stories concerning richer and powerful nations garner more headlines than those about poorer nations like Rwanda. Even when the poorer nation gets in the headlines, it is often through the prism of a western eye.
The best example being Romeo Dallaire’s book “Shake hands with the devil”; where Rwanda is secondary to his personal trauma even though it is well-written and mostly factually accurate.
A Jewish friend of mine once remarked that hardly any holocaust films were made from the prospective of a victim; people prefer films like Schindler’s List where a good Nazi remembered his humanity, and in so doing he placates our fear that we are all evil.
The genocide has yet to elicit as film from a survivors’ perspective; instead we have awfully trite and fictionalised movies like Hotel Rwanda.
Conflict – a good news piece needs conflict but the genocide was the murder of innocents so there was not conflict to speak of. The war between FAR and RPF was parallel to the genocide but hard to report.
Consonance – Stories have to fit media expectations, there is nothing that the media loves more than being right.
The Cassandra complex comes from ancient Greek myth when a prophetess called Cassandra was blessed with the gift to foresee the future but was cursed that nobody would believe her; the press has this complex and it gives it a sense of purpose.
So we have a rolling déjà vu feeling when we see the same stories repeated in the media; famine in Ethiopia, clan war in Somalia, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, corruption in Nigeria, ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the list goes on. These stories become self-fulfilling prophesies where a nation becomes defined by how outsiders see it.
If you ask the average Westerner they often believe ethnic war is still perpetually going on in Rwanda but tourists are often shocked by the progress we have made but this progress often is unreported because it doesn’t fit in with the vision the western media have of Rwanda.
Continuity – a story should be like an onion with layers to unravel, they have to fit in with other stories. At the time of the genocide, Rwanda was thought to be a self-contained bubble and the effects of the genocide would only be felt in Rwanda. How wrong they were.
The genocide had a domino effect on many nations; the refugees spilled into all neighbouring countries even as far as Zambia, Central African Republic, but most notably in DR Congo where it ignited internal factors resulting in 5 million dead.
Composition/competition – stories compete in the media for news, there is limited time and space for any given story.
At the time of the genocide the effects of the cold war meant that the world was realigning and redefining borders; the election of Mandela in South Africa, the war in former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and in America the Suicide of the Rock singer Kurt Cobain.
The death of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana received more coverage than 10,000 people dying daily; that is the saddest indictment of the media in relation to the coverage of the genocide.
This abomination carries on till this day as mindless celebrities like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears get more coverage that the entire continent of Africa; it is because the news also exists to take you away from the problems of daily life so suddenly the trivial and mundane are better than harsh reality.
So the question any human being should ask themselves is “What has a genocide that happened thousands of miles away, in a strange country, with people who don’t look like me and a culture so different to mine. What has that got to do with me?”
The answer is it has everything to do with you; it is only by the grace of God that it hasn’t happened to you. If one looked at Germany in 1932, few would have predicted that just a few years later there would be industrialised murder on a massive scale.
In Cambodia, few would have predicted the terror of the Khmer Rouge. Sadly if one is to look at where the world is heading then genocides are more likely to happen than not; for soon people will be fighting for scarce resources such as land, water, even oxygen will be depleted if we carry on with our current way of living as pollution and global warming takes hold. But Rwanda has learnt the bitter lessons of division and hatred; Rwanda will never let one side annihilate another.
The moral of the story is to love your neighbour and speak out when you see the signs of impending genocide; for even in Rwanda although many stood up to help their friends, far too many others stood silent while the killing went on, some even asked “What has it got to do with me?”
Those people should read the following poem by Rev. Martin Niemoller written in 1945 after the holocaust; you can substitute the words for a more Rwandan context but the essence is the same.
Ask yourself whether you would speak out and whether people would speak out for you?
First they came for the Comunists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me. NEVER AGAIN