It has been 25 years since Rwanda slid into the abyss. The killings happened in broad daylight, yet many of us failed to grasp the unfolding events.
When human beings are at their worst — as they most certainly were in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide — the world needs the institutions of journalism and the media to be at their best. Sadly, in Rwanda, the media fell short.
Confronted by Rwanda’s horrors, international news media at times turned away, or muddled the story when they did pay attention by casting it in a formulaic way as anarchic tribal warfare rather than an organized genocide. Hate media outlets in Rwanda played a role in laying the groundwork for genocide, and then encouraged the extermination campaign.
The lessons of Rwanda, in some respects a textbook case, should have been clear. But a quarter century later, these are lessons that we still struggle to absorb.
The global media landscape has been transformed since the 1994 Rwanda genocide. We are now saturated with social media, frequently generated by non-journalists. Mobile phones are everywhere. And in many quarters, the traditional news media business model continues to founder. Against that backdrop, it is more important than ever to examine the nexus between the media and the forces that give rise to mass atrocity.
At times, it seems that those who abuse the power of media and communications to demonize and divide get the upper hand, echoing on new social media platforms the same hate and prejudice as that broadcast all those years ago in Rwanda.
Social media tools can be used to inform and engage, but also - in an echo of hate radio in Rwanda - can be used to demonize opponents and mobilize extremism. We are left with many troubling questions, still unresolved despite the passage of time since Rwanda.
A new publication, Media and Mass Atrocity: the Rwanda Genocide and Beyond – documents an effort to revisit the Rwanda case study while also casting forward to other scenes of mass atrocity where media have played a role, or could serve a preventive function.
Moderator: Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, Head of Special Projects from Institute for Security Studies
Allan Thompson, editor of Media and Mass Atrocity, will join some of the other contributors to the edited volume at a South African Institute of International Affairs panel discussion on Monday, April 15. Thompson will chronicle the back story of one of the most important pieces of news media footage gathered during the genocide, a few minutes of video captured by cameraman Nick Hughes, who trained his camera lens on the death throes of a man and woman who were killed on April 11, 1994 in the Kigali neighbourhood of Gikondo. The Rwanda case study sets the stage for an examination of how the terrain where media and mass atrocity often intersect has shifted in the past quarter century.
One of the first “echoes of Rwanda” came in Darfur. James Siguru (Wahutu), a Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society visiting fellow, explores the little-examined question of how African media cover atrocities on their own continent. Looking at African media coverage of Darfur, his research relies on interviews with journalists in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa and his prior work on African media and Darfur. For Siguru, the answer to the chapter’s motivating question ‘who tells the story of African atrocities to African audiences?’ is simple: not Africans. Siguru’s chapter title borrows from a direct citation from one of his interview subjects, who said, “we have failed as a continent.”
Geoffrey York is the Johannesburg-based Africa correspondent for Canada’s daily newspaper, the Globe and Mail. York will examine the impact social media has had in conflict zones across the continent. In his chapter, York notes that in many African countries, social media has helped to expand freedom and empower citizens and challenged the traditional state-controlled monopolies of information. But at the same time, social media has had dangerous and worrisome consequences. It has facilitated new forms of hate speech against ethnic minorities or opposition groups. It has allowed the spread of false information that misleads and distracts the population. And it has allowed authoritarian governments and powerful business interests to intimidate and harass dissidents and others who challenge their authority, including journalists, opposition politicians and civil society groups.
Stephanie Wolters is the head of the Peace and Security Research program at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). Her research focuses on political and conflict dynamics in the Great Lakes region, elites and political change, and the crisis in Zimbabwe. Prior to joining ISS, Stephanie conducted conflict analysis for the International Finance Corporation’s Conflict Affected States in Africa program, focusing on the private sector and conflict across Africa, and she was the political economy focal point for the World Bank team’s Country Economic Memorandum in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Stephanie has worked in over 30 African countries as a researcher and journalist for the BBC, Reuters, the Economist Intelligence Unit, Swisspeace, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and others. She was the Mail & Guardian’s Africa editor from 2006 to 2009 and the editor in chief of Radio Okapi from 2001 to 2003. She has published widely on conflict dynamics in Africa and led numerous media projects, including First TV, Zimbabwe’s first independent television station. Stephanie holds an M.A. in African Studies from the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies.
Hamilton Wende is a freelance writer and television producer based in Johannesburg. His articles have appeared in many international and South African newspapers, magazines and websites, including BBC, National Geographic Traveler, The Chicago Tribune, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others. Journey Into Darkness, a documentary on the genocide in Rwanda he worked on for the BBC with producer David Harrison and correspondent Fergal Keane won the 1994 Royal Television Society’s International Current Affairs Award.
The South African Institute of International Affairs is an independent public policy think tank advancing a well governed, peaceful, economically sustainable and globally engaged Africa. The head office is located in Johannesburg on the campus of Wits University.
Allan Thompson is a CIGI senior fellow and head of the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa. He joined the faculty of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication in 2003 after 17 years as a reporter with the Toronto Star. At Carleton, Allan is the head of an international research project examining the nexus between journalism and the COVID-19 pandemic.