About 80 people, including GW students, attended a panel discussion Thursday in the World Bank InfoShop about the role of the media in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
The audience, which consisted of World Bank employees and journalists in addition to the students, came to hear from the editor and three contributors to the book “The Media and the Rwandan Genocide,” released last week. There were also 10 people who watched from the World Bank offices in Kigali, Rwanda via video conferencing.
Allan Thompson, the editor of “The Media and the Rwandan Genocide” and contributing authors Steven Livingston and Mark Frohardt all spoke about how Western media coverage affected foreign response to the genocide.
“The international media failed to cover the Rwandan genocide in 1994,” said Thompson, a journalism professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Can., who worked for the daily newspaper The Toronto Star in 1994. He added that he would have been interested in covering the story if he had known.
“In 1994, working for The Toronto Star, I was oblivious to the events going on in Rwanda,” he said. “Now I wonder how I missed this story.”
Thompson showed the audience at the World Bank a clip of the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” which he said is what most Western cultures understand as the Rwandan genocide. Thompson also showed cameraman Nick Hughes’ footage from Rwanda, on which scenes in “Hotel Rwanda” were based, as a comparison to the movie’s less graphic rendition.
The video clips show a calm systematic killing procedure Thompson described as similar to a “roadside work crew” rather than the “rampaging ethnic groups” the media reported.
A contributing author who was in Rwanda studying American news media coverage of the genocide in 1994, Steven Livingston, described the process by which journalists in Africa decided which images to send back for the Western news media. Less intimate shots were the norm, said the School of Media and Public Affairs associate professor.
“The object of media attention became the refugee camps,” Livingston said. “The framing of the story resulted in the public seeing the genocide as more of a medical relief operation.”
Livingston stressed how devastating the genocide was with over 800,000 killed in 100 days. He said other news stories such as the O.J. Simpson trial dominated the headlines in 1994 rather than the genocide.
Contributing author Mark Frohardt, deputy chief of mission for the United Nations Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda from 1995 to 1997 said the fact that O.J. Simpson took the media spotlight isn’t surprising.
“Even if 800,000 people died in Rwanda, one person being murdered right next door is much more interesting,” he said.
Frohardt spoke mostly about the use and abuse of the media to stir popular opinion. He called for changes in news media whereby journalists can “expose those manipulating media and provide laws to protect journalists from doing so.”
Contributing author Thomas Kamilindi, who worked as a radio journalist in Rwanda, spoke about government controls of Rwanda Radio. Kamilindi described how his father, born half Hutu and half Tutsi, had to hide his true ethnicity to survive the unrest. Tutsi was the targeted ethicity for genocide by the Rwandan government.
Kamilindi said his journalism caused many to express hatred toward him, and some even tried to kill him. Kamilindi quit his position at the radio in 1994 because he was tired of spreading hate messages about groups fighting the government, he said. The many private radio stations and private newspapers in Rwanda are encouraging, Kamilindi said, but the new Rwandan government may stifle the new expressive outlets.
“At first I was deceived by the new regime, but they want a media that they can control,” he said. “I am afraid that we could see exactly the same thing (as Rwanda).”