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 Media Ethnicization and the International Response to War and Genocide in Rwanda

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PostSubject: Media Ethnicization and the International Response to War and Genocide in Rwanda   Thu Dec 17, 2009 2:41 am

The western media regarded that the Rwanda war was ethnically driven by taking the deliberate disinformation, so the media became accomplices in the power politics of external actors with interests in the region. The result of this media-driven agenda was a vicious circle – crisis, images, intervention, further crisis, more images, repeated intervention – that helped exacerbate the Rwandan crisis to the point of genocide, and then exported that crisis to neighbouring Zaire.


The volume of Western coverage of recent African crises is always in direct proportion to the scale of direct Western involvement. No Western troops or high-profile, publicity-hungry NGOs mean no media coverage. Mass murder far from the Western lens is small news. On the other hand, mass epidemic with the potential for Western intervention is big news. For example, Gerard Prunier who is East Africa specialist and sometime adviser to the French Defence Ministry tells how he met Bruno Delhaye, head of the French President’s Africa Unit in December 1992 while French troops were preparing to join the US-led operation. Delhaye explained French involvement:

You see, it is soon going to be Christmas and it would be unthinkable to have the French public eat its Christmas dinner while seeing on TV all those serving kids. It would be politically disastrous…. But don’t worry, as soon as all this stuff blows over and TV cameras are trained in another direction, we will quietly tiptoe out. With luck it shouldn’t last more than three to four months and in the meantime we will try our best not to do anything foolish. (Prunier, 1997:135)

The Western media’s ethnicization of the conflict justified Western intervention and was perhaps so used deliberately. In short, the media left themselves open to charges of neo-colonialism. The media portray the conflict as ethnic and focus on human suffering rather than its political causes provokes demands for a presumed apolitical response – freeze the situation if not solve it – which equals forcible humanitarian intervention. Consequently, the media, though mechanical ethnicization of conflict in Africa, become the vehicle of a post-Cold War neo-colonial agenda, what has been called the Second Scramble for Africa.


The Great Lakes region of eastern Central Africa received little attention in the Western media in the decade before mid-1994. The Western news media whose coverage of foreign affairs is so frequently limited, sporadic and more ill-formed than actually subjective should have acquitted themselves poorly in Rwanda. Since 1990 it is not intended to express surprise at ignorance, indifference, racial stereotyping and ethnic labeling in most coverage of events in Rwanda and its region. Therefore, we will consider a chain of cause and effect which was put in place as soon as the Rwandan war began in October 1990 and the most calamitous effect was what it portrayed as an ethnic war.


International coverage of the Rwandan crisis is most obviously characterized by misinterpretation resulting from oversimplification and the related, racist tendency to label all conflict in Africa as tribalism, by means of which a unique set of political circumstances is ethnicized and thus explained away. Ethnicization was singularly inappropriate, and particularly provocative in Rwanda. In a timely interview in November 1996, social geographer Dominique French told Le Monde that, in contradiction of much of its own coverage:

The Hutus and Tutsis do not form two different ethnic groups. An ethnic group is defined by a unity of language, culture, religion or territory. The Tutsis, Hutus and Twas live together… They speak the same language and share the same culture and religion. They used to specialize in certain areas of the economy, but nor systematically… The conflict can’t be described as ethnic, since there’s only one ethnic group in Rwanda, and that’s Rwandan. (Interview by Jean-Pierre Langellier, Le Monde, 12 November 1996)

Although the societies of the Great Lakes were distinguished by separate castes in pre-colonial days, the current segregation into separate ethnicities is a product of the colonial era, used effectively to divide and rule Rwanda’s population. So, the Rwandan conflict was exacerbated by the international media’s adoption of the false analysis which was in many ways at the root of the conflict. For example, most reporters’ sources appear to have been limited to their own organizations’ cutting and audio/ video library; interviewees on the ground were almost always fellow Westerners: NGOs, UN troops, or indeed other journalists. What is more surprising is the frequently repeated idea that Rwandan genocide was the result of spontaneous and unforeseen violence resulting from public outrage at the assassination of the country’s president when his private plane was shot down on 6 April 1994. In its apportioning of blame for the failure of the international response in Rwanda, the media are highlighted:

Surveys of the British, French and US media… show that relatively little change occurred in the media coverage after 6 April compared to the paucity before. There was a blip with the shooting down of the plane and the reporting on the slaughters – generally portrayed as ancient tribal feuds – but with the withdrawal of foreign personnel there was a precipitous drop in coverage. When the genocide was accelerating, the Western press virtually ceased to report on Rwanda. (JEEAR, 1996, Vol.Ⅱ: 46)


In conclusion, international media coverage of conflict in Rwanda continued to fall into three broad categories: Firstly, ignorance – where the reporter, flown in at short notice has no grasp of the situation and repeats platitudes and errors; Secondly, a little knowledge – where the reporter has read up in the cuttings library and seeks to insert any new information into an existing framework of ethnicity to the extent of asking Rwandans their ethnic group; and finally the hidden agenda – revisionist coverage. For example, the Guardian’s front-page banner headline of 23 July 1994, “Rwanda apocalypse”, did not describe, as might be supposed, the genocide which had killed up a million over the previous three months, but the subsequent outbreak of cholera across the Zairean border in the camps in Goma, but there was no explanation of how or why the refugees came to be in such a sorry plight and who had forced them into it. The media’s concentration on the visually dramatic story of the refugees was also partly responsible for distorting the distribution of resources into camps and away form survivors. As media interest has ebbed, so have donor commitments.
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