Jul 1 1994

As Rwanda Bled, Media Sat on Their Hands

Nyamata Memorial Site, Rwanda (cc photo: Fanny Schertzer/Wikimedia)

Victims of the Rwandan genocide. (cc photo: Fanny Schertzer/Wikimedia)

As a genocide it ranks with the century’s biggest–the Armenians, the Jews, the Cambodians. But this spring, as Western officials marked the 50th anniversary of the Nazi Holocaust, no one–least of all the U.S. government–lifted a finger to stop the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans. And U.S. media coverage played along with the Clinton administration’s policy of handwringing.

Almost daily since the Rwandan genocide began on April 7, broadcast media have aired horrific accounts and the major papers have featured the story on their front pages. The media seldom wavered, however, from their habitual racist portrayal of African strife as atavistic tribal savagery.

Occasionally, deep down in newspaper stories, the political context of the attacks on the Tutsi minority by members of the Hutu majority was acknowledged. But a reader seeking an explanation for Washington’s inaction could read on through the end of May and come up empty. Instead of probing U.S. policy, the big media gave the Clinton administration an easy ride.

Contrary to the media’s endlessly reiterated theme, what is going on in Rwanda is not mindless tribal slaughter. The April 6 downing of an aircraft carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habiyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira–the incident that sparked the genocide–is widely believed to have been the work of Habiyarimana’s own ruling clique, a hardline group bent on aborting a laboriously negotiated coalition government. That coalition would have brought the Tutsis into the Hutu-dominated government for the first time since Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962; it would also have included democratic-minded Hutu opposition parties.

The hardliners, known as the “Little House” group, constituted themselves as a rump government and launched militias, armed, trained and choreographed well in advance, on a systematic massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus (Washington Post, 5/9/94). Some Africa experts and human rights activists believe that France is quietly continuing to support the rump government. Journalist Frank Smyth, who has reported on French support for Rwanda for Human Rights Watch, noted in the Village Voice (5/17/94) that French officials received representatives of the murderous Little House government in late April.

It would not be the first time the French had stood by the Rwandan hardliners. In 1990, when the largely Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded from Uganda, France rushed to provide military support to the French-speaking Habiyarimana government. In February, when Hutu operatives killed about 1,000 people, Smyth told EXTRA!, the Clinton administration withheld its support from international efforts to pressure the Hutu hardliners that would have put the French on the hot seat. Washington’s passivity, Smyth said, convinced the Hutu hardliners “that they could massacre all the Tutsis and Hutus willing to share power” and retain France’s backing.

It is not as if French support for the Rwandan government was a great secret. Smyth’s Human Rights Watch report, which clearly identified France as the Rwandan government’s main foreign military backer, was widely distributed to the media in January 1994. Had the report not been ignored by the big media, says Smyth, it “could have been used to call into question France’s policy of providing arms without conditionality” on the government’s human rights practices.

Instead, even after the the scope of the genocide was clear, France’s role was obscured. French support for Habiyarimana was sometimes briefly mentioned–for example, in a Washington Post op-ed by Jennifer Parmelee (4/24/94), and in a New York Times article by Elaine Sciolino (4/15/94). But even in these references, French responsibility was played down–France “finds itself in the embarrassing position of having armed and advised the government that is now being accused of responsibility for many massacres,” wrote Stephen Kinzer in the New York Times (5/25/94)–and mainstream journalists failed to explore the logical question of France’s post-Habiyarimana role.

But lack of interest about France is not surprising, given the media’s complete lack of interest in U.S. policy. Pentagon documents show that since 1988, the U.S. has trained 29 Rwandan officers under the International Military Education and Training program, and the 1995 IMET budget calls for training nine more. Human rights activists and some foreign media commentators have accused the Clinton administration of stalling UN Security Council efforts to intervene in Rwanda. Mainstream media reports have yet to focus on these issues.

Indeed, the operative principle seems to be don’t-ask-don’t-tell. An administration official, speaking on background, told Extra! that very few reporters had even bothered to ask whether Clinton’s policy distinguished between the RPF rebels and the rump government. (“Human rights organizations and aid workers have uniformly held the Hutu-led militias responsible for most of the carnage in Rwanda,” as Mark Fritz of the Associated Press reported–5/17/94.) Official administration policy, as expressed in mid-May after the military’s role in killing hundreds of thousands was abundantly clear, is that the U.S. wants “both sides” to stop the fighting.

Such sanctimony has been challenged in regard to Bosnia, where persistent media reports pinpointed victim and aggressor–and spurred the Clinton administration to at least go through the motions of succoring the embattled Muslims. But, when it comes to Africa, wrote Elizabeth Schmidt in an op-ed in the Baltimore Evening Sun (5/10/94), “We don’t demand–and we are not given–the careful historical context we expect in analysis of [European] ‘ethnic conflicts.'”

Schmidt discusses the European colonists’ preference for giving power and education to the lighter-skinned Tutsis and the bloody Hutu revolt against this dispensation after independence. “The roots of the Hutu-Tutsi rivalry must be considered in terms of the unequal distribution of power, privilege and economic resources that were clearly exacerbated, if not solely created, by European colonialism,” Schmidt wrote.

Occasionally, reporters did serve up the political context of the genocide, but most often it was deeply buried. On May 5, the New York Times quoted the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda, David Rawson:

The ethnic dilemma was used by different sides as a shield behind which the play for power was being done. Quite clearly there was a real system to the political assassinations. There must be some system to the mass killings as well. It’s not just mayhem.

Nevertheless, even after the politics behind the massacre was known, editors and reporters continued to prefer the Tarzan reruns imprinted in their minds. “Pure tribal enmity” (4/18/94) was Time magazine’s explanation for the “tribal carnage” (4/25/94). The San Francisco Chronicle (5/7/94) and the New York Post (4/22/94) both made reference to Africa’s “heart of darkness.” Jennifer Parmelee (Washington Post, 4/24/94) was one of the few writers who stressed that “it is not as if Africans have any monopoly on armed madness.”

Some, in their haste to shoehorn Rwanda into an ethnic framework, even got the ethnic distinctions wrong. In two successive issues (4/18/94, 4/25/94), Time incorrectly identified Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingyimana, a Hutu official who was slain by the military, as a Tutsi.

This latest variation on the “they-all-look-alike” theme, and the media’s comfortable acceptance of the administration’s “even-handed” policy, shows that to U.S. news elites, Africa and Africans’ sufferings don’t amount to a hill of beans…or a stack of bodies.