Analysis: Rwanda war debates media's role

By JESSICA BRAUNSCHWEIG, UPI Correspondent   |   Feb. 21, 2007 at 11:01 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Did the failure of the international media to timely report the slaughter of nearly one million civilians in Rwanda facilitate the work of the executioners?

Allan Thompson, founder of the Rwanda Initiative and former Toronto Star reporter said, "Somehow I remained oblivious to what was happening in Rwanda in 1994." And tragically, many Americans still are.

The local press, however, were far from ignorant. In fact, one domestic radio station, Radio-Television Libre des Milles Collines, assisted in the genocide.

A newly released book, "The Media and the Rwanda Genocide," analyzes this question which was the subject of a recent discussion at the World Bank in Washington.

Thompson, editor, along with the contributing authors, challenged the inadequacies and hidden agendas of the media. Panelists highlighted how the media can avoid propaganda and censorship while increasing journalistic responsibility both locally and around the world.

The most powerful source of hate media throughout the Rwanda genocide occurred within the government-owned radio station, Radio-Television Libre des Milles Collines, which continued to spawn the killings between the Hutus and Tutsis. The absence of the international media, some say, allowed the killings to continue. And Rwanda's lack of diversity within their media allowed the Hutu-led government to place tight control on the domestic media.

Thomas Kamilindi, a Rwandan native, worked for the Milles Collines and offered insight into the biases of the Rwanda radio and print media. He described the government's instigation and ignoring of the killings. Raised as a Hutu, Kamilindi was no stranger to his tribe's dissent with the Tutsis. Yet that barrier became a bridge for his persecution.

"The radio never spoke badly about the Hutu government army, so the rebels -- mostly Tutsis -- were seen as devils and the Hutus as good guys," Kamilindi said. Such public announcements successfully encouraged hatred between the Rwandan people, for whom the radio is "a form of gospel truth."

As the massacres began, Kamilindi resigned -- refusing to fuel the hatred any longer. "I tried to fight the hate messages, but I failed." Soon, his own message became a cry of help -- he joined the Tutsis in fleeing from the government. His father became one of the nearly one million people who were murdered in the 100-day span of the conflict.

The deaths reached the point where health advisories warned people to stop eating fish due to the overload of human bodies in the water -- "rivers clogged with humanity."

Thompson emphasized the power of the media to present the iconic image -- to "show us the news images that come to typify an event that makes the general public want to do something to take action," he said.

The news images that the media chooses to show is another topic. Thompson referenced the media's agenda setting: the connection between news content and policy-decision making. The "CNN effect" states that there often is a connection.

The international media's impact on politics and public opinion often has the power to influence the outcome of certain events.

The public's support or condemnation of events, especially those involving military intervention, may be greatly influenced by the media. Case in point: NATO's intervention in the Balkan war was deemed largely successful because of the positive spin the British government gave to the bombing of Yugoslavia. Public opinion supported the government. Similarly, when the U.S. military became involved in Kosovo, the media emphasized the "humanitarian war," stressing that U.S. intervention helped save the lives of tens of thousands.

But who gets to label the crises?

Gulf War II, or the invasion of Iraq for example, has not profited from a positive press, particularly when compared to the nearly unanimous approval rating given to Gulf War I, or the liberation of Kuwait.

The media adamantly supported Bush Sr.'s decision to drive out Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. People can certainly point to other factors for the press's support or lack of support. Bush, Jr. never had the U.N. mandate to go ahead in the first place and the alleged "weapons of mass destruction" were never proven to exist, to name a few.

The media's lack of support for the U.S. involvement in Gulf War II parallels the negative outcome of the Vietnam War.

Much of today's media remains divided over Iraq and President Bush's handling of the war. Some media outlets, such as the Qatari-based al-Jazeera, are accused of providing publicity to al-Qaida. Others, such as Fox News, support Bush's war efforts.

But returning to the Rwanda debate, most people seem to agree that the lack of international coverage given to the Rwanda genocide made matters worse.

Mark Frohardt, media theorist, challenged the lack of global media intervention in Rwanda and pointed at journalists who "comply to lower standards because it makes it easier to get along in the (media) community."

Frohardt recalled seeing the actual clips on TV in 1994. Yet the severity of the footage was classified as merely ethnic conflict. "The role of the media was really laying the groundwork for (the Rwanda) explosion," Frohardt said.

Thompson said that the presence of the international media would have prevented, or at least lessened, that violence. He compared the necessity of ethical journalism to the Heisenberg effect seen in physics, where, by simply observing a particle, one can actually change its behavior.

Could the Rwanda scenario happen again? Concerned attendees asked whether it is happening again -- in Darfur -- as we speak. "The Media and the Rwanda Genocide" seeks to offer future answers and solutions. Some members of the audience couldn't help but wonder if this book, also, is too late.

But it's not too late for changes to be made within both global media partnership and local Rwandan diversity, the panelists emphasized. Through the Rwanda Initiative, media capacity building continues to grow in Rwanda.

The Rwanda story was re-told in the 2004 Hollywood film: "Hotel Rwanda." But attendees of the discussion saw actual footage of the killings: ax-holders, nonchalant, dragging people from their houses, beheading them systematically in a row. Panelists emphasized the worth of that footage being used in journalism classrooms around the world.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of live coverage taking place in Darfur. According to the Save Darfur campaign at least 400,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million displaced from their homes. The violence, rape, torture, starvation and mass slaughter going on in the Sudan today has been belatedly brought to the public's attention. The attention it has received has been raised most adamantly by pop culture celebrities. Leading that crusade is undeniably actor George Clooney. And, as the public is becoming more informed and passionate about the injustices, media attention seems to be increasing despite the U.N.'s recent announcement that the events in Darfur fall short of receiving the "genocide" label.

In this case, is public outrage driving the media to give Darfur the attention it deserves? Or, is it too little, too late?

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