Left to right: Simon Cottle, Catherine Bond, James Siguru, Susan Harada, Allan Thompson and Roméo Dallaire.

Media and military response to Rwanda genocide still highly criticized

Panel meant to debate the moral responsibility of the media to cover genocide turns into criticism of foreign militaries on the ground

Panellists Catherine Bond, Simon Cottle, and James Siguru (Wahutu) joined the associate director of the Carleton School of Journalism and Communication, Susan Harada, to discuss the international coverage of genocide in Rwanda and beyond.

Cottle and Siguru are academics who have spent years researching in the field while Harada and Bond served as international journalists during the genocide. Though their conversation began by focusing in on the role of the media during the genocide, it soon became an appraisal on the military forces and Roméo Dallaire’s role as UNAMIR Force Commander.

Cottle opened the discussion by offering a reflective critique of the original arguments set forth in Allan Thompson’s The Media and The Rwanda Genocide (2007). He described the logic of what he called the “calculus of death” — an institutionalized doctrine that some lives matter more than others in Western media coverage.

He argued that because newsrooms function in a highly competitive market, stories like those that came out of the Rwanda genocide are not always given the space or attention they deserve.

“It is a highly cynical, highly institutionalized, highly routinized practice in newsrooms,” Cottle said.

Left to Right: Simon Cottle and James Siguru — Panellists on the International Coverage of Genocide.

Cottle spoke in favour of a journalistic alternative which he called the “injunction to care” — a form of journalism that attempts to engage or invoke care in its audiences, connecting them with “the human plight of others.”

“The media have a moral obligation to report on atrocious events that are happening around the world,” Cottle argued. “Irrespective in terms of what might happen after that, there is an absolute moral imperative that [atrocity] is witnessed and known, documented and disseminated for the rest of us.”

During questions, Mark Frohardt challenged Cottle on the concept of journalism’s moral obligation to document distant atrocity for a domestic audience more concerned with stories in close proximity.

“One (death), you know, next door is much more important than 1,000 deaths across the planet. That is basic human nature,” Frohardt said.

Cottle responded, stating that human nature is not “static” as Frohardt may have suggested.

“I think increasing numbers of us recognize that we have moral responsibilities to others,” Cottle said, adding that journalists can do a lot to drive this recognition forward through the stories they tell.

Siguru then offered a different perspective on the idea of “international coverage.” He has argued throughout the conference that “international” is often conflated with “Western” coverage. Siguru said that often the news being circulated on the ground in African countries (such as Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda, and the Darfur region) is lifted directly from major wire agencies, such as Reuters. As a result, the local communities are not exposed to coverage from their own journalists. This reality compromises original, ground-level coverage.

This, he said, is having detrimental effects on how people in Africa understand the narratives around African countries. International coverage misses “a large chunk of the global narrative on mass atrocities,” he said, adding that the media and the international community misunderstand how local populations understand atrocities.

Left to Right: Simon Cottle, Catherine Bond, James Siguru, and Susan Harada.

“African voices are being marginalized in the narration of African atrocities,” Siguru said. “African voices are not telling these stories.”

Catherine Bond opened her panel presentation, by reviewing her own experience and memories from the Rwanda genocide. She chastised the role France played on the ground during the genocide, labelling the French as “a major diplomatic obstacle.”

The audience hung on her words as she read a passage from her paper in which she outlines her memories from April 1994. She described the corpses in the street and the apathy of the French paratroopers whom she watched pass them by.

“We often didn’t understand what we were seeing,” Bond said, explaining how she and other journalists were left guessing as to who was being killed and what exactly was happening because no one would talk to them.

Left to Right: Simon Cottle listens as Catherine Bond reads an entry from her paper on Rwanda in April 1994.

Asked how future conflict journalists could learn from her experience of misunderstanding the reality on the ground — Bond offered the following: “It comes down to being a better journalist. Be more persistent, be more professional, listen really hard. And listen to what you are telling yourself because I know that I subconsciously realized it was genocide before I consciously did.”

The discussion then shifted as Roméo Dallaire, UN Force Commander in Rwanda during the genocide, returned to the round table. Bond soon began to review the role of the international military forces in Rwanda —renewing her criticism of the French forces. Other panelists raised questions on the Belgian battalion and the actions of Dallaire himself.

Panellists listen to responses from Roméo Dallaire on force resources and deployment in Rwanda 1994.