What lessons can be learned from media coverage of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda? Canadian journalist and scholar Allan Thompson, who teaches at Ottawa’s Carleton University, has compiled the accounts of foreign journalists into the first book that analyzes the role played by local and international news outlets in the country during the Rwandan rampage. Local radio stations are widely singled out in Thompson’s The Media and the Rwanda Genocide for inflaming Rwanda’s transistor radio-listening public and fueling a killing campaign between dominant Tutsis and majority Hutus. In contrast, the international media is cited for failing to grasp what was unfolding until it was too late and giving too little attention to the story. Professor Thompson says that scholars will be studying the issue for a long time to come.
“Frankly, I think one thing we need to learn is that we have a lot to learn. I think it’s really useful to reexamine the way news organizations conducted themselves, both inside Rwanda – particularly hate media – but also the other part of the media equation – international media,” he said.
Professor Thompson says that 12 years after the tragedy, there is still an urgent need for a free press in Rwanda where journalists do not feel constrained from covering significant issues and developments.
“Radio is still king in Rwanda. Since the genocide there have been a fair number of new, independent FM stations. But there is still concern about the overall media environment. I’m not suggesting that it would contribute to another genocide, but there are very real concerns about freedom of the press – sort of a climate of self-censorship among a lot of journalists, which, I think, means everyone still has something to learn from the events of 1994, An important lesson is that we missed all the warning signs. We did not seem to understand what we were hearing on the airwaves, didn’t see how this was connected to a sort of demonization campaign to lay the groundwork for genocide,” he said.
Unlike the Rwandan genocide, the mass killings in Sudan’s Darfur region are receiving high profile international media attention, even though coverage is severely limited on the ground in such a remote region as western Sudan. Professor Thompson notes that there are lessons for the international press to draw from this situation as well.
“What’s the connection between media coverage and political decision-making by those who would be in a position to mount an intervention in a place like Darfur or could have done so in Rwanda?” he asks. Certainly, Rwanda did not register in our consciousness until months later, when we started paying attention to the plight of refugees in Goma, who had fled the country after the genocide. And in the case of Darfur, yes, it probably has received more coverage, but it still has not become the ‘tsunami’ that we experienced in the media a couple of years ago.”