WASHINGTON, D.C. — Twenty years ago this month a killing spree began in a small country in Central Africa. Several weeks went by before the world learned the extent of the killings – learned that a genocide was under way in Rwanda. We now know that at least 800,000 Rwandans were massacred in the spring of 1994. A panel discussion on April 2 at VOA examined why so little was known for so long.
The panel event, Media and Genocide Prevention: What have we learned from Rwanda?, was moderated by VOA Central Africa Service Chief Robert Daguillard and featured news correspondents and regional experts offering their insights into why the international media paid so little attention to the catastrophe in Rwanda until it was too late.
In the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, said VOA Director David Ensor, who delivered opening remarks at the event, “we have asked ourselves many questions about how the media may have failed Rwandans…. These are critical and necessary questions to ask.”
Panelist Allan Thompson, a journalism professor at Carleton University in Canada who joined the discussion from Ottawa, said “There were only two journalists with Western news organizations who were in Rwanda on April 6th.” Even for very good journalists, Thompson said, “it was difficult to discern what was…going on around you. Imagine being dropped into that environment in early April. How do you explain this and therefore inform and motivate public opinion to put pressure on leaders?”
Michael Dobbs, a former journalist who now is a senior advisor at the Center for Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that the world’s attention, regrettably, was elsewhere during the weeks leading up to April 7, 1994, listing the Bosnian War as well as the election and inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the major headline news events at the time. “A lot of the [foreign correspondents in Africa] who probably would have gone immediately to report from Rwanda as soon as those killings began, were all focused on this big event in South Africa,” Dobbs said.
Panelist Mark Nelson of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance, said the tragedy in Rwanda “showed how powerful and how devastating media can be,” referring to the local Rwandan “hate media” that fanned the flames of ethnic hatred between the minority Tutsis and majority Hutus.
Idriss Fall, a veteran war reporter for VOA’s French to Africa Service, also joined the panel discussion. Fall was on the ground covering the Rwandan genocide for VOA, and also recently returned from reporting on the humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic, a country where a very real threat of genocide looms. “Like in Rwanda in 1994, people see that something is going to happen,” Fall said, urging the international media and community at large not to ignore the warning signs. “Our job is to tell people that this is happening, today. Right now, VOA has two reporters in Bangui, doing their job.”
The panel discussion was streamed live online and is available on-demand. Panelists and moderator Robert Daguillard took questions from followers on Facebook and Google Hangout during the event, as well as Twitter questions submitted using the hashtag #VOARwanda20.
Voice of America broadcast in French to Rwanda in 1994, and established the Kirundi and Kinyarwanda language services in 1996 to cover Rwanda’s post-genocide recovery. VOA’s Central Africa Service today broadcasts throughout Rwanda, Burundi, Northwest Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.