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Anniversary Prompts Questions on Media’s Role in Rwandan Genocide

Performers re-enact events at a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, at Amahoro stadium in Kigali, Rwanda, April 7, 2014.

Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda, experts met in Washington last week to discuss the role of the media in the tragedy.

Local media were used to incite the racial violence that contributed to the 1994 genocide, where 800,000 people died.

Meanwhile, international media failed to properly inform the public about the scale of the tragedy, panelists at a forum on Media and Genocide Prevention said.

“Did we in the news media fail the people of Rwanda?” David Ensor, director of the Voice of America, said. “If so what could we have done differently? What did we learn from the Rwandan catastrophe? How are we applying that lesson to today’s humanitarian crises?”

Mark Nelson, a former journalist who is now at the National Endowment for Democracy, said the international community was unaware of the scope of the problem as it was occurring.

“I think it was a broad failure of not just the media, but of all institutions, and of our system of international assistance,” he said. The international community has learned much about integration of media and assistance and broader development since then, he said.

Allan Thompson, a professor of journalism at Carleton University, in Canada, said the media “failed collectively,” despite the hard work of individuals.

“We failed to make people understand what was happening on the ground,” he said. “And as a result, we did not move public opinion, and there was no groundswell of pressure on, for example, the Clinton Administration to do something.”

As the genocide was taking place, local media were spurring it on. And that raises questions about how to act against such incitement, Stephen Rapp, the US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes, said.

“Once you get a media inciting the genocide, then the question is what you do about the media itself,” he said. “And there was questioning at the time about whether the radios should be jammed, for instance, something we would generally not like to see. And at that point it was believed that perhaps there wasn’t legal authority to do it.”

Idriss Fall, VOA’s French-to-Africa reporter, who covered the genocide in 1994, said the Voice of America did its part. “We covered very well, I think, the genocide in Rwanda.”