Hidden Truths: The Media, The West and Rwanda

Hidden Truths: The Media, The West and Rwanda

Lynsey Anderson

 As an undergraduate student, I found that studying history at the University of Dundee broadened my perspectives on global and international relations. I studied not only Scottish history, but also American, Russian, and contemporary African history. The consequences of globalisation are particularly prominent when studying African history, a subject matter which is often ignored by historians working through a eurocentric lens. As a result, I decided to focus my research dissertation on Rwanda, a state which has a long history of colonisation and intervention from western powers. My study was centred on the 1994 genocide and the role that the media, domestic and international, played in fuelling the conflict in the country.

©2008 JON WARREN/WORLD VISION

Tutsi Pastor Anastase Sabamungu (left) and Hutu teacher Joseph Nyamutera visit a Rwandan cemetery where 6,000 genocide victims are buried.

The first chapter of my dissertation analysed radio transcripts from a prominent radio station, Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines (RTLMC), in the lead up to and during the genocide. This was complimented by using oral history accounts of survivors and perpetrators of the genocide, as well as documents from the Media Trial, conducted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). From this, I was able to conclude that the station was paramount in fuelling the genocide, while also using the evidence to assess the motivations behind participation in the conflict. Participation of civilians in the genocide is a contested issue among historians, with some explanations including entrenched racism and economic turmoil. However, my study reveals that the motivation to kill was rooted in fear and self-defence. For example, one RTLMC tape read, “In 1958 and 1959, some individuals went to Nyanza … They said some people were oppressed and exploited by others, that they were flogged while others lived in slavery that had already been abolished… Think, look back and you will realize that those events we went through can reoccur.”[1] Hutu extremists used the radio to disseminate false reports and dehumanizing language to make listeners believe that the goal of the Tutsi was to return all Hutu to their poverty-stricken, serf status prior to the 1959 revolution. Thus, the authorities used the station to distort and simplify the past to generate fear and further its political agenda.

My second chapter analysed newspaper reports of the genocide from both the United Kingdom and the United States. Nearly all of the newspaper articles had excused the genocide as a civil war between two tribes, with the language used conveying a sense of barbarity and hopelessness. Prominent examples which relate to my research would be Jerry Grays article “2 Nations Joined by Common History of Genocide” from The New York Times, as well as Robert Blocks, “Rwanda and Burundi Straddle Perhaps Africa’s Most Gory Fault Line” from The Independent. I argued that the language used by these news reports made the western public unsympathetic towards the suffering, and thus contributed not only to their complicity through misinformation and despair in ending the slaughter, but also to the ability of western politicians to downplay the genocide to avoid intervention. By using documents from the National Security Archive, I explicitly show that western politicians were aware of what was going on in Rwanda, and rather than label the tragedy a genocide – which would require action – they articulated the narrative reflected in the newspapers of Africans as backwards and fated to kill one another. Clearly then, the media had given the politicians an easy ride.

Several key themes can be identified from my research, including the importance of historical context when assessing any crisis situation. Historical context alongside social constructions were of paramount importance in the genocide, dictating the relations between the Hutu and Tutsi. The role of western nations in the genocide simply cannot be overlooked, where colonial rule institutionalised the previously socially permeable split between the two ethnic groups. Indeed, Western nations have been built and financed from the depredations of empire, with its ‘divide and rule’ tactics leaving native populations embittered. Despite Rwanda gaining independence in 1962, it is clear that by 1994 and to the present day, the legacy of colonialism lives on, the consequences of which determine present and future international relations. Thus, my dissertation is a prominent example of the importance in understanding global history and the implications of a globalising world.

This point is taken further in my second chapter which again highlights how we in the west, must also appreciate historical context. In the context of colonialism and white racism over many generations, the west viewed Africa and Rwanda through a colonial lens, with journalists evidently perpetrating the ‘Hamitic myth’ as well as the outdated stereotype of African’s as primitive and backwards. This is an issue which must be addressed if we are to live harmoniously in a global society where we are able to help and understand one another effectively. Indeed, a controversial question which lay at the heart of my research was where the blame for the genocide lies. The obvious answer would be the Hutu extremists of the Habyarimana regime. However, this question cannot be understood without situating it within a global context. The international community failed Rwanda in 1994, and contributed to making a mockery of the UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment for the Crime of Genocide.

While arguing these points, the biggest challenge I faced when conducting my research was in finding sufficient sources to work with. Many of the primary sources I had access to were in Kiryarwanda or French and thus, I had to work from a number of English translated radio transcripts. I also faced a language barrier for newspapers, and as a result I decided to focus my research on the United Kingdom and United States. I have now completed my undergraduate dissertation, and I believe that my final project reflects many of the aspects of history which I am interested in studying. Principally, my research highlights the power of history as a tool to manipulate and further political agendas whilst also reiterating the influence – and ignorance – of nations in global affairs.

 

Lynsey Anderson is a graduate of the University of Dundee having achieved a First Class honours degree in History. Her historical passions encompass themes of international social justice and struggles for freedom, with issues of racism and class divisions explored in her undergraduate dissertation. Lynsey has currently taken a year out from her studies, before going on to take up a place at Edinburgh University to study a postgraduate degree in American history, with the aim of progressing towards a PhD.

 

[1] Rwanda File: R.T.L.M. Tape 0295 (16/01/1994) & R.T.L.M. Tape 0115. (22/04/1994)