Media failure over Rwanda’s genocide

Posted: December 28, 2010 in Evidence Material
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By Tom Giles

By late afternoon, they looked like water lilies cloaking the river’s surface.

Only when the light reflected off the water did you catch a truer glimpse of them: bodies by the dozen, bloated and obscene, floating together downstream. Bit by bit, you built up a picture of something human in the expanse – a back, an arm, the slope of a neck.

After minutes of concentration, perhaps, you could get a hint of someone’s father, someone’s brother or daughter – lost in the eddying circles that swept them on to Lake Victoria.

We stood on the bridge above the Rusumo Falls along the Kagera River – the crossing that marked the border between Rwanda and Tanzania. Behind us were the newly erected tents and plastic sheeting of the makeshift Ngara Camp.

Hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees had fled Rwanda just days before, seeking shelter in this grim settlement. Hidden among them were some of the killers.

These were members of the Hutu gangs that were already responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of their Tutsi neighbours. They had encouraged this exodus, fearful of revenge from the Tutsi army – the RPF – which had managed to liberate a small part of Rwanda over the border.

A few weeks later, as the extermination continued in the vast areas the Tutsi army could not reach, some 800,000 would be dead. For all our frantic efforts, we didn’t realize we were already too late. Nothing would be done to stop the killing.

‘Watch the smell!’ my colleague gestured, choking. The wind must have turned suddenly. I looked away – in time to see a figure flushed out over the crest of the falls, tumbling down into a pool far below.

It surfaced, a black body whitened by death but distinct – a small boy, a baby – perhaps no older than my nine-month-old son. He bobbed stiffly – 30 or so feet beneath – the saddest thing you could imagine, testing and taunting your humanity, burnt in the mind forever.

Two days before, at home in London, I had received a message from my TV news editor saying 250,000 Rwandan refugees had just crossed into Tanzania that day – 30 April.

This article appeared originally on the BBC website on 7 April 2004 as Media Failure Over Rwanda’s Genocide. It is also available on the BBC website at <>.

Camps of that size were always news, and they were there to be filmed. I would fly out that day. Although I was aware of the killings that had begun in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, on 6 April, I and the rest of the world had seen little since to suggest the scale of what was happening.

Apart from the images bravely snatched by the fleeing press corps in the genocide’s first days, there were few pictures. Once the UN had all but left the country, the hazards for journalists trying to get back in by land were too great.

For nearly three weeks in April, after its first days had passed, the story of one of the twentieth century’s worst crimes had failed – in an age of global satellite broadcasting – to make the top of the TV news bulletins.

This was mainly due to the difficulty of access into Rwanda. But there were other issues. Most senior correspondents were down in South Africa covering the election of its first black president. In comparison, this story seemed at first too obscure for them – an African blood feud. The problem was to be compounded by the appalling nature of the pictures.

Months earlier, the BBC newsroom had been bombarded with complaints when a small massacre in neighbouring Burundi had been shown in dreadful detail, once, on the lunchtime news. Someone had issued a directive about pictures. This was allowed to set the tone, in the BBC at least, for a story of unimaginably greater consequence.

On my way to the airport, I had hoped to make copies of the rushes that had been sent from Rwanda. But there were almost none. The worst – the ones that actually showed the scale of the slaughter – had never been aired.

They were sent to London in mid-April when the need to alert the world to what was happening was at its greatest. An entire news piece, gathered at great risk to the BBC team filming it, was dropped. It had been deemed too graphic for British viewers.

The next day, I met the same BBC team in Nairobi. With polite exasperation, the cameraman explained how he had been told to make future pictures wider – less distinct, more impressionistic.

He had been unable to achieve this with the offending shots, as he had tried to do what he thought would be right in the circumstances – to get some record, from a moving car and without being seen by the killers themselves, of the piles of bodies nine feet high that lined both sides of the road.

With our BBC colleague, Mark Doyle, still negotiating to fly with the UN peacekeepers back into the Rwandan capital, Kigali – I took another team in a small chartered plane to the camps. After hours of flying, we reached an isolated airstrip then drove for hours more through appalling mud-clogged tracks to reach the Hutu refugees at Ngara.

We had little time to take in the scene – filming mass human misery in cold, scattergun fashion. Some of these Hutus were perpetrators or accomplices to the killings – not the victims. None of them would suffer too much. Ngara was at least full of crops, food and aid agencies.

We had to press on, crossing the border at the Rusumo bridge. Soon after, the scale of the Hutus’ work became clear.

This corner of Rwanda had been liberated days before by the advancing Tutsiled army, but all around there was silence. Apart from the flies and vultures, it felt as if all nature had fled the earth.

Ahead lay towns and villages abandoned by the living, among them those soon to become infamous like Nyarubuye – with its church full of bodies. It would be more than six weeks before the full graphic horror of these scenes would be broadcast on the BBC.

For now, I had to record a voice-track with the reporter and turn back with my rushes to reach Nairobi and the satellite feed. Alone, and abandoned by the pilot who had promised to return, I had to hire a passing plane on the spot and fly back through a lightning storm.

With a minute to spare, the piece was edited and rushed through the Nairobi traffic to be fed by satellite to London. Finally, the story led the news again – though I regret much of the horror was carefully self-censored.

For this much at least, I was commended. London now wanted human stories from the camps, of getting aid to the refugees, of babies born in misery.

It was clear even then that this was not a story of refugees or of some distant civil war but of a systematic genocide still being carried out. But it was hard to get this message across – this was a complicated story in a country few people had heard of. Refugees were, at least, a simpler issue.

Weeks of frustration followed. Pieces were often re-edited in London – shots of bodies removed. On one occasion, a shot of a sack on the ground edited in by us to avoid showing bodies was removed because, I was told, the viewers might still have thought it was a body.

What the viewers in London weren’t seeing in scale was what I saw in pictures arriving back in Nairobi – corpses piled high, decaying skulls and skeletons, terribly injured children.

What they did see often were images of refugees in camps and of gunfire in the heat of the battle that raged for control of Kigali. Only one BBC team, from Newsnight, ventured further into the active killing zones at this time.

The producer, a friend, has never forgotten the hollow faces of those Tutsis he met, trapped and abandoned, waiting to die in a camp south of Kigali.

Three and a half weeks after I had flown out, I returned to London, exhausted and overwhelmed by a sense of failure. Weeks later – long after the vast bulk of the killing had stopped – another decision was made.

Fergal Keane’s extraordinary Panorama – ‘Journey into Darkness’ – on the killings at Nyarubuye would be broadcast with, at last, pictures showing the true scale of the horror, uncensored.

It went out on 27 June. It was the first of many harrowing and moving documentaries about what happened to Rwanda’s Tutsis in the weeks from April to June 1994. All of them, unfortunately, were broadcast too late to prevent it.

As journalists, we were rightly quick to condemn the inaction of the UN and the wider international community over Rwanda. But many of those who tried to cover this appalling story as it happened around them still harbour, as I do, a lingering sense of helplessness – a sense of guilt, perhaps shame, that we didn’t do more to apply pressure for action when it might have made a difference.


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