Subjective News Media in the Context of the Rwandan Genocide

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Laura Hurlbut


Final Essay

December 3, 2004

Subjective News Media in the Context of the Rwandan Genocide

American news media is not simply a means of communicating current events. Rather it is a tool used to manipulate information such that the end result is promotion of a specific ideology or perspective. Just like commercials sell products by playing into the viewers desires, so too does the news respond to and determine the viewer’s desired perception of self and nationhood. By deciding not only which stories to cover and which not too, as well as how to cover these stories, news media plays a fundamental role in determining public responses to world events which in turn directly relates to public policy and foreign policy.

In order to illustrate this relationship, it is helpful to look at specific examples of news coverage of some major events. I will specifically look at the United State’s response to the Rwandan genocide as well as the role played by news media in ensuring the success of America’s ambivalence. In this case, it was the choice to exclude stories and images from the news that was ultimately linked to our failure to act.

Later in the essay, I will examine current news media and its slanted coverage of the war in Iraq. This will provide an interesting case study of the techniques used to package information into “best-selling” news stories. The rhetoric surrounding our involvement in Iraq constantly promotes our role as freedom fighter and agents of democracy. This depiction is not only inaccurate but serves a direct purpose in selling our foreign policy to the mass public.

Unfortunately, the Rwandan genocide is an excellent example of the west’s ability to manipulate and influence the information that is eventually relayed to the public. By examining the crisis in Rwanda and the lack of response from the international community, it become clear that misinformation is just the tip of the iceberg and that in reality, there is often intentional suppression of information as well as serious alteration of the facts. To fully understand the Rwandan genocide it is first relevant to discuss the country’s rocky colonial history that led up to it.

The Hutu and Tutsi tribes have inhabited Rwanda for all of the countries known history. Without going into minute detail, there are differing theories about who came first and from where, but the bottom line is that for the purpose of understanding the genocide, the two ethnicities have always cohabited Rwanda.

The group in power, however, has been subject to change throughout Rwanda’s history and these changes directly correlate with the country’s colonial history. During Belgian’s rule over Rwanda, the Tutsi minority was favored and employed in political elite through the police forces. The European attitude toward Rwanda even pre-Belgian rule was very pro-Tutsi. The Europeans believed that the Tutsi were ethnically superior to the Hutu, primarily because of their more slender, and essentially more European, features. Extensive studies were performed by European colonists in which measurements of the Tutsi features were recorded and examined. Although there are no pronounced physical differences between the two tribes, there were traits which seemed to be more commonly found in one ethnicity over the other.

During and before Belgian rule, the Tutsi constituted Rwanda’s minority. Yet, they were a more powerful minority, known to be wealthier and hold positions of power in Rwanda’s monarchical state. Although a minority, the Tutsi essentially dominated the country’s majority, made up of Hutu. Yet, even with this division in power, there were always exceptions, especially of Tutsi who occupied the same status as many less powerful Hutu. Essentially, not all Tutsi were wealthy and educated, but most if not all Rwandans with wealth and education were Tutsi. The Hutu were oppressed by the Tutsi regime and denied many basic human rights such as education and any form of political voice. The Hutus tended to be poor and live in rural, underdeveloped areas within Rwanda. Despite these trends, there were no rigid racial lines and this is reflected in the fact that many Hutus and Tutsis intermarried and lived harmoniously within the same rural communities.

Colonial rule placed a major strain on ethnic relations that had previously functioned smoothly. By reinforcing the Tutsi power structure and not only granting these rulers greater power but by repressing Hutu participation, a greater divide was created between the two ethnicities. This was further aggravated by the employment of Tutsi as agents of law enforcement over Hutus. The result was a corrupt ruling class determined by ethnicity and a power hungry majority who were continually experiencing denial of basic rights.

In the early 1960’s Rwanda experienced a revolution which again drastically altered the status of ethnic relations within the country. The suppressed Hutu majority overthrew the Tutsi government and created its own Hutu dominated regime. The revolution was actually aided by the previously pro-Tutsi Belgians. This shift in policy can be explained by the expected role of Belgium within Rwanda which was that of an overseer of progress. Post World War One, Belgium was essentially assigned the duty of aiding Rwanda’s development and helping the country to eventually become a self-sustaining member of the international community. Consequently, despite its pro-Tutsi leanings, Belgium had no choice but to support the Hutu cause. As the Hutus constituted Rwanda’s majority, continued denial of their political voice would have essentially been a denial of democracy. This would have been greatly frowned upon by an international community that leaned heavily toward democratic ideals. The main driving force behind this revolution was not only to gain power but also to seek retribution for the years of Tutsi domination. Thus, one extreme form of rule was replaced by another, and the level of tension escalated dramatically.1

Under former Rwandan president Habyarimana, the Hutu extremists in power espoused racial division, specifically hatred toward the Tutsi minority. There were several instances of massacres against Tutsis, as well as moderate politicians who did not support the regime. The persecution of Tutsi under Habyarimana resulted in a mass exodus of refugees to neighboring countries Barundi and Uganda. When faced with the issue of refugees Habyarimana declared that none of them would ever be allowed re-entrance to Rwanda because the country was not big enough for them. What he really meant is that the Tutsi refugees were undesirable members of Rwanda, and eventually, he hoped to rid Rwanda of them entirely. Habyarimana’s attitude toward race relations was not one of compromise. He deepened the chasm between the Hutu and Tutsi, not only through his hateful rhetoric, but also through his mandates requiring Tutsi to be registered and to have identification cards with information pertaining solely to their ethnicity. In retrospect, this action is clearly a step taken early on by the president toward the racial cleansing that he eventually intended to carry out.

Another relevant factor leading up to the genocide was the RPF, a guerilla fighting force comprised of extremist Tutsi. The role of this organization was basically to respond to the repressive Habyarimana regime with similar tactics, with the intention of taking back the power that the Tutsi once enjoyed. It is important to understand that this group was equally as extreme as the Hutu government and their fighting tactics were far from humane. Furthermore, this organization was made up of a small number of extremists and did not represent the popular Tutsi attitude. However, Habyarimana manipulated the public fears by associating all Tutsi with the RPF and thus instilling the notion that all Tutsi were a threat to Hutu power. Additionally, Habyarimana viewed all moderates as a threat to his regime and consequently, their names were added to the list of intended victims.

In the early nineties Habyarimana made all necessary arrangements for genocide to be carried out. Hate and fear were instilled in Hutus who listened to Rwanda’s only radio station (which was owned by the government). The training of Hutu killers was structured and overt. “Like the Hitler Youth, the militia, attached to political parties, comprised the uneducated and unemployed of the country’s youth, taken from the streets and from local football teams and given rudimentary training in the use of weapons.” 2

In addition to the radio broadcasts and the training that occurred in broad daylight weapons were “secretly” obtained from international powers such as Egypt and France. When these large weapon importations became conspicuous, farming equipment, which was actually intended for killing, was imported. “There are invoices, bank statements, arms contracts, faxes and telexes showing that the most intensive preparations took place in 1993, when half a million machetes and other agricultural tools were purchased and distributed throughout the country, including hundreds and thousands of hoes, axes, hammers and razor blades.” (Melvern 65) Many of the murders in the genocide would eventually be performed with these machetes, hoes, and shovels.

Meetings were held all over Rwanda in which Hutus of all ages and gender were briefed on the plan to rid Rwanda of the Tutsis. The preparations and rhetoric of the genocide were so blatant even the countries Vice president had no qualms about mentioning it in a speech. He said: “we have to take responsibility into our own hands…the fatal mistake we made in 1959 was to let them (the Tutsi) get out….they belong in Ethiopia and we are going to fin them a shortcut to get there by throwing them into the Nyabarongo river. We have to act. Wipe them all out.” 3

The most horrifying fact of the genocide is that preparations were far from discreet and indeed, often occurred in plain sight. The Hutu government knew that the international community would turn a blind eye. Indeed, the international press had little interest in the events occurring within Rwanda. Melvern describes this reality: “In spite of the increasing violence, the public warnings and the publication in January 1994 of Human Right Watch’s exposure of the regime’s arms deals, the press paid little attention…The local press was hostile and the international press, at a time when exposing what was going on could have made a decisive difference, was not interested at all.” (Melvern102)

The event which correlates directly with the genocide’s beginning occurred on April 6, 1994, when Habyarimana’s plane was shot down near Kigali. The party or person responsible for the crash and consequent death of Rwanda’s president is still unknown. Yet within twenty-four hours, the “systematic killing of opposition politicians, pro-democracy Hutu and Tutsi” began. The assassination of Habyarimana no doubt added to the intense fear of a Tutsi take over among the Hutu extremists in power. Known as the “Interhamwe” or “those who attack together” these Hutus executed an organized and pre-meditated slaughter of Tutsi. Roadblocks were erected in Kigali and people were stopped and forced to show their identification cards. Those whose cards read “Tutsi” as well as individuals who had no card but appeared Tutsi, were slaughtered on the spot. The killing in Rwanda that began with Habyarimana’s death was extensively planned out and based completely on the intention to exterminate an entire ethnicity: no matter what the west would call it, this was genocide.

Meanwhile, the UN Peacekeeping forces within Rwanda, which were very limited in number, where essentially powerless. The UN was extremely reluctant to get involved in international conflicts, even those that appeared to involve violations of human rights. This was greatly influenced by the humiliation of the United States in Somalia one year earlier. In one of the few instances where the United States attempted to defend human rights, the troops sent into Somalia were insufficient in both number and training and had no real conception of the mobs they would face on the ground. The American troops were overtaken and killed, and images of the mutilation and public display of their corpses flooded international news stations. This experience caused the American government to re-evaluate its foreign policy, and to essentially redefine the international situations that merited US intervention.

In her book on the Rwandan Genocide, Melvern comments on the unfortunate effect of having Somalia as a recent memory. She says: ““The American soldiers who died in Somalia were killed two days before the Council was due to vote on whether or not the UN would provide peacekeepers for Rwanda.” (Melvern 79) The result was a negative vote on the issue of peacekeepers in Rwanda, an action that could have potentially halted plans for genocide.

Even more disturbing than the lack of support for increasing UN troops in Rwanda was the increasing support for removal of the already existing, limited number of peacekeepers. This support peaked when Hutu rebels slaughtered several Belgian soldiers, in what appeared to be a repeat of America’s experience in Somalia. It is important to note that had more peacekeepers been present in Rwanda, the support system would not have allowed for these killings to occur. Rather than resulting from the superiority in skill or weaponry of the Hutu, these murders were a result of being outnumbered, plain and simple. Yet instead of sending in reinforcements, which is what should have been done, the Belgian government voted to remove the remaining soldiers, for fear of experiencing further casualties and humiliation.

What is most disturbing about this turn of events is that it played directly into the hands of the Interhamwe. In fact, it is documented that the Hutu government fully understood that in order to force peacekeepers out of Rwanda, and thus clear a path for the killing of Tutsi, all they had to do was kill a small number of troops and the international community would pull the rest out. It is both disillusioning and disheartening that the western powers would behave in such a way, and even more so that our behavior would be seen as so predictable.

The removal of UN troops from Rwanda essentially gave the Interhamwe a free rein to proceed with genocide. The international community, through these actions, sent the message that any atrocious violations of human rights in Rwanda would not be hindered. What is even more disturbing about this removal of troops is that the Tutsi refugees were gathered in mass numbers around the areas being patrolled by peacekeepers. Thus, when the UN troops departed, huge numbers of Tutsi were left defenseless against the Hutus who quickly came in to kill them, without even having to search them out individually. In the PBS documentary entitled “The Triumph of Evil,” a Tutsi survivor recalls her experience, recalling the shots fired in the air by UN officers in order to clear a path for their vehicles through the mob of refugees begin them to stay. “After we heard those shots in the air, we were frightened because it was as if it were a signal to show the Interhamwe that they had gone, so that they could come in and kill everyone.”4 This information reveals that the actions of the UN peacekeeping forces resulted in a greater degree of vulnerability than might have resulted had they not even been there in the first place.

A common misconception about Rwanda’s genocide is that the international community did not fully understand the scope of the atrocities being committed. This attitude is understandable, because it is hard to conceive that a powerful country like the United States would understand what was happening and do absolutely nothing about it. Yet this is exactly what happened. Not only were we inactive during the genocide, but we ignored multiple warnings prior to the genocide. Had we recognized these warnings and taken some form of action, the genocide in Rwanda could have potentially been prevented.

The most prominent of these warnings was a wire sent to New York by the head of UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda on January 11, 2004. The information conveyed in the wire was obtained through a conversation with one of Habyarimana’s top political officials. The informant outlined the plans for genocide in Rwanda. He discusses the training of Hutus and the purpose of this training. The wire said: “Since UNAMIR mandate he has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali. He suspects it is for their extermination.” The wire could not be any more clear in its indication that genocide was imminent in Rwanda. Yet, incase those reading it in New York missed the obvious, the wire goes on to say that when the informant described the training of Hutus, “an example he gave was that in 20 minutes his personnel could kill up to 1000 Tutsi.”

Another disturbing element of the January 11 wire is the Hutus accurate prediction of international response. The wire explicitly states: “Belgian troops were to be provoked and if Belgian soldiers restored to force a number of them were to be killed and thus guarantee Belgian withdrawal from Rwanda.” The language used in this passage implies extreme self-assurance on the part of Habyarimana’s regime. They accurately predicted that the international response would be one of cowardice and saving face rather than bravery and saving lives. Sadly, they assumed correctly that the international community would participate in Rwanda only if the cost was extremely low.

This is even illustrated by the UN’s response to the information transmitted in the wire. In addition to outlining plans for the systematic extermination of the Tutsi, the January 11 cable also revealed the location of several stockpiles of weapons which were to be used to carry out the genocide. Thus, the head of UN’s peacekeeping force in Rwanda was asking for permission to seize these weapons, a procedure that would have been painless and very low cost. Yet, with recent memories of Somalia and an unclear attitude toward cost benefit analysis as applied to human rights issues, the UN did not grant permission for the seizure of these weapons stockpiles. Thus, the most basic and straightforward means of prevention were ignored and the information from an informant, who risked his life in an attempt to save others, was worthless.

In addition to the January 11th cable, the international community had other warnings of the atrocities to come in Rwanda. It is essential to recognize that preparations for the genocide were far from covert. The nationally owned radio station broadcasted propaganda promoting hatred of Tutsis. It instilled fear in its Hutu listeners and called them to participate in a defense of their national rights by exterminating the Tutsis who were perceived as a grave threat. In addition to these radio broadcasts, training of the Interhamwe was performed out in the open. Indeed, the Tutsi were well aware of the government plans and many of them fled to the neighboring countries of Uganda and Barundi. Those who could not flee lived in terror of what was to come.

Another warning sign, which was completely overlooked by the international community, was Rwanda’s mass weapon importations in the early nineties. Rwanda had several weapon agreements with Egypt, and although they were supposedly secret it was not something that would have been difficult to discover. These importations were especially suspicious because there is no obvious reason why Rwanda would need such a large amount of weapons, as they were not at risk of fighting any other countries. Clearly then, these weapons were intended for a domestic purpose and it does not take a genius to hypothesize what that domestic purpose might have been given the tenuous ethnic relations within Rwanda.

The bottom line is that signs of the impending genocide were not difficult to see. There is no question that the international community had adequate intelligence regarding what was to occur in Rwanda. Yet, rather than sending more troops in as a preventative measure, we ultimately removed troops. Thus, we willingly looked the other direction while crimes of rape, mutilation, and murder were committed on a mass scale.

The West’s lack of involvement in preventing or at the very least, tempering the Rwandan genocide, forces one to question the justification for such inaction, especially given our full understanding of it. What were we doing while these events were occurring and why didn’t we respond to this egregious violation of human rights? As I explained earlier, the situation in Somalia, and its proximity, both in time and location to Rwanda, definitely placed a damper on the United State’s enthusiasm to participate in humanitarian missions. After the humiliation experienced in Somalia, the United States had to assess its involvement in international affairs and to decide when military action was necessary. The response, as exemplified by the United State’s lack of involvement in Rwanda, was one largely based on self-interest, or rather national-interest. Many government official in the United States, including President Clinton, were quoted saying that military action would only result when “key US interests” are at stake.

This new standard for determining when to act militarily forces one to consider what exactly is meant by the term “US interest.” Is it based on economic factors? Resources? National Security? The answers are clearly yes, and I don’t believe there has ever been any doubt about the United States interest in these areas. Yet, one would think that a country that prides itself on civil liberties and freedom would view promotion and protection of human rights as one of the most important US interests. Apparently, this is not the case.

Yet this is not what the United States would like others to believe. For that reason, the rhetoric surrounding our foreign policy has often been laden with connotations of Americans as freedom fighters and democracy spreaders. In fact, one cannot get through an elementary education in America without studying American history, in which America is painted as the epitome of a freedom loving democracy. Furthermore, every year beginning around second grade, American children are required to read stories of Nazi Germany and the American heroes who saved the day. One would think from this perspective that America loves freedom and human rights and that we would do anything to protect these rights as well as those to whom they are denied.

This perception is further supported by the American’s participation in the post World War II Genocide Convention of 1948. This treaty, passed in the wake of the Holocaust, stated that perpetrators who slaughtered innocent victims simply because they belonged to a certain ethnic, national or religious group would be suppressed and punished by the international community. In an excerpt from her book Again and Again, Samantha Power describes the United States attitude toward genocide in the post WWII era:

“The United States led the movement to build on the precedents of the Nuremburg war crimes trials, enshrine the “lessons” of the Holocaust, and ban genocide. Though slow to enter the Second World War, this country emerged from the armistice as a global spokesperson against crimes against humanity, taking charge of the Nuremburg proceedings and helping draft the 1948 Genocide Convention, which embodied the moral and popular consensus in the United States and the rest of the world that genocide should “never again” be perpetrated while outsiders stand idly by.”
Thus, America emerged from World War Two with enthusiastic support of worldwide human rights and their willingness to protect them.

Unfortunately, as American foreign policy has panned out since WWII, America’s actions have not matched its words. Rather than working to suppress acts of genocide, we have simply turned the other way or conveniently called the acts by another name. As Power says in her book “Genocide has occurred so often and so uncontested in the last fifty years that an epithet more apt in describing recent events than the oft-chanted ‘Never Again’ is in fact ‘Again and Again.’”

Yet, rather than recognizing our complacence and inaction toward the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity, we simply maintain that they are not really genocide and meanwhile, promote our role as heroes in the Holocaust or some other political endeavor. Power also recognizes this pattern, describing it as a “Holocaust industry of sorts.” She then goes on to say “there have in fact been more stories on Holocaust-related themes in the major American newspapers in the 1990’s than the preceding forty-five years combined.”5 This revived interest is a result of America’s need for distraction from our lack of involvement in more recent genocides as well as reaffirmation of our role as heroes.

The need for rhetoric and imagery which bolsters this perception of one’s nationhood is further evident in the media’s coverage of our current war in Iraq. The occupation of Iraq has been touted as “Operation Iraqui Freedom,” a title which suggest we are only present in the Middle East for reasons concerning democracy, freedom, and promotion of human rights. Indeed, news coverage has promoted images of American soldiers saving those who were oppressed under the regime of Suddam. Before the war it was expected that soldiers would be welcomed into Falujah with open arms and celebratory singing. Unfortunately, this idealized depiction was far from the reality.

Our proclamation that the mission in Iraq is based on the spread of freedom and democracy is problematic for several reasons. First of all, not to minimize the lack of human rights in Iraq, but what would cause us to chose Iraq as a “humanitarian” mission before other countries that are clearly in greater need of our help. It is obvious, despite the rhetoric, that there are other US interests at stake: namely, oil. But why can’t the news and the government just come out and say this? Why can’t they be straightforward and honest? The reason is because they must package and sell a perspective and in order to do so, it must be made to look like a selfless act of heroism regardless of the reality.

During Rwanda’s genocide we did not package anything. Instead, the news and the government acted as if nothing was going on. Once the genocide was over and we had done nothing to prevent it, instead of realiazing the magnitude of our mistake, the United States simply brushed it under the rug and created distractions, such as diversions in the Kosovo or the Middle East. People have trouble recognizing that our foreign policy is not one that truly values what it claims too. This failed recognition is based largely on media coverage of events and the filter through whuch information must first travel before reaching the public audience. Unfortunately, while the American public may be kept in the dark about its foreign policy, the international community, which experiences it directly, is fully aware of the hypocracy. America must demand more accurate and objective accounts of our foreign policy and to question information more critically. We must look through the perfectly packaged news stories and instead acknowledge the far from perfect reality.

1 Melvern, L R. A People Betrayed: The role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide

2 Melvern, L R. A People Betrayed: The role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide

3 Mugesera speech

4 PBS “The Triumph of Evil”

5 Power, Samantha: Again and Again

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