The media doesn’t understand genocide

Fairness, but no accuracy, when it comes to genocide reporting


Canadaland released a memo in which the CBC cautions its reporters to not unequivocally state that the Armenian genocide was a genocide.

Looking past the memo’s awkward formulations (has anyone else ever referred to the Holocaust as an “attempted” genocide?) and the familiar politics of journalistic equivocation (but some people deny climate change!), the CBC’s excessive caution hints at a darker truth about the media — we have no idea how to deal with genocide.

The evidence has been piling up for a 100 years. During almost every genocide of the 20th century, the Western press utterly failed at reporting the truth of what was happening on the ground.

Reports coming out of the Ukraine during the Holodomor were ridiculed by Stalinist apologists like Walter Duranty, the Moscow Bureau Chief of the New York Times, who called allegations of mass starvation a “big scare story.”

The Holocaust was papered over in favour of a narrative of general European suffering under Nazi rule. While the roving Nazi execution squads and industrial death camps in Eastern Europe were well-documented, they were relegated to the back pages. The crime of the century was never once considered to be the day’s top story by the Times.

In Cambodia, the press framed the atrocities as a result of the war between the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge, instead of state-sponsored mass terror. According to Martin Wollacott, who was a Southeast Asia correspondent for the Guardian, many reporters “laughed off a bloodbath” by ascribing reports of genocide to propaganda from the American embassy.

But the most glaring failure came in 1994. The media’s inability to grasp what was happening in Rwanda would be comical if the results weren’t so tragic.

The media first turned its eyes to Rwanda on April 28, a month after the genocide began, when around 250,000 Hutu refugees fled Rwanda into Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The media and aid agencies flooded into the border-city of Goma to cover the unfolding humanitarian crisis. Reports focused almost exclusively on Western aid agencies helping the refugees, sending a message that it was Hutus who were being victimized in Rwanda.

The country was often characterized as a “failed state,” obscuring the strong state that was orchestrating genocidal violence on an industrial level. The civil war, which was being won by Tutsi rebels, was often confused with the genocide, which was being perpetrated against Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

To be fair, this wasn’t based entirely on a willful refusal to ascribe blame. The structural problems with Western reporting in sub-Saharan Africa were on full-display.

The vast majority of African bureaus were based out of Nairobi or Johannesburg and had little interaction with tiny Rwanda. And the journalistic resources on the continent were fully deployed in South Africa at the time, where 2500 foreign reporters feverishly covered that country’s first multi-racial elections. The number of western journalists in Rwanda never went above 15.

It’s clear today that the Western press did not understand what was happening in Rwanda until it was too late. The media found it easier to ascribe any atrocities to immutable tribal violence or the civil war instead of using the “g” word. And that decision had serious consequences.

As a recent Foreign Policy report makes clear, the Clinton Administration (including Susan Rice, who is Obama’s National Security Advisor) well knew that a genocide was taking place in Rwanda. Instead of intervening, they pressured the U.N. to draw down peacekeepers, exacerbating the killing.

If the media had actually had any understanding of what was going on, and had been willing to lay blame at the feet of the Rwandan state, there’s a chance public opinion could have been galvanized against the despicable inaction of the international community.

The narrative of two sides blindly killing one another lacks any nuance or sense of history, and is therefore easier to understand and convey to audiences. Subsuming the suffering of a targeted minority into the general chaos of war is similarly less controversial than naming and shaming one side for organized violence.

That’s why the CBC’s memo is so worrying.

Turkey denies the genocide, and the CBC brass see this as a legitimate reason to temper their language. If a similar genocide were to take place today, the perpetrators would no doubt deny, deny, deny. Should the press really give their denials legitimacy?

If they’re not willing to unequivocally label what happened in Turkey a century ago a genocide, then what will they do when the next genocidal regime rears its head?

If 100 years of history is any guide, they, and the rest of the press, will probably get it wrong.

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