3: International media coverage of the Genocide
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jouralist with Agence France Presse and Africa specialist
for the network since 1994
Jocelyn Coulon: Thank
you very much Steven. I’d now call on Anne Chaon
from France Press. She was a correspondent in Rwanda
during the genocide. I’d like to call to Anne
Chaon, who was there.
Anne Chaon: Since we’ve
been talking about the failure of the press, I would like
to be the devil’s advocate. We are here in a journalism
school. So I would like to explain how we worked as
reporters in Rwanda in ’94. And by the way, I would
like to quote three lines of a report written for the International
Press Institute in the year 2000, six years after the genocide,
written by Alan Cooperman, who said:
“The media must share the blame for
not immediately recognizing the extent of the carnage, and
not mobilizing the world attention to it.”
That’s my starting point, and we’ll
try to come back to it. I work out for a press
agency, Agence France Press, and starting on April 7, 1994,
managed to be present during almost the entire time until
the end of the genocide until the end of June, and beyond.
One of our first correspondents based in Nairobi, who went
immediately to Bujumbura and crossed the borders by car to
go to Kigali was Annie Thomas. I asked her to say a
few words, and I’ll read.
“You asked me if I think about it
sometimes. It’s much more than that, much more
than sometimes. It has become a kind of obsession, because
of the event itself, because of the people I met there, victims
and killers, because of our inability to describe properly
those events during the first few weeks, because of the militia
men who with their machetes dripping in blood would come to
say how much they loved France. At the beginning, I
was in France, I was in Kigali, and I was there, where the
President came from in ’94. Imagine what Rwanda
looked like. I will not explain to Rwandan friends,
but for some of you, a few points. There were bombs.
There was a civil war. There were hundreds of thousands
of people moving on the roads. There were barricades
with the drunken militia men, who had machetes and AK 47’s,
who’d come to get Tutsis, who would ask people for their
ID cards, for the press they’d open our cars.
They were looking for reporters of Radio France international.
Why? Because they spoke French. These militia men didn’t
listen to the BBC, but to the RFI. If they had found
them, this is what they would have done. They also described
very simply their position. Hutu majority. Tutsi
minority. That’s what we worked on reporting everyday,
every hour for radio. That was the case of Mark, and
we also had certain permanent broadcast.
So in such a situation you had to try and
find your position, and you have two faces. So these
three months of genocide from April 7 to the beginning of
July when the rebels came into Kigali, we were one of the
rare media to speak out. Sometimes we were the only
international agency. The BBC also stayed almost all
the time. RFI was also present all the time, but very
few media were there all the time. Why? Well don’t
forget because you are future reporters, don’t forget
that the press is a company. They want to be profitable,
and such kind of communication costs a lot of money, especially
if you use satellites.
We mentioned the international situation
where Rwanda unfolded. There was the siege in Bosnia.
There was South Africa, that was organizing it’s first
election. In the United States, they were interested
in OJ Simpson. In France we were all concerned by the
death of Ayrton Senna the Formula 1 driver. But in April,
1994, the world was more interested in Bosnia than Rwanda.
Imagine and remember that the conflict in Bosnia had started
in 1992, in ex-Yugoslavia in 1991, that apathy had gained
the population. And that’s why they weren’t
interested in Rwanda. Now, would you have wanted the
genocide to have lasted two or three years to get as much
coverage as in Bosnia? What we saw in France was the
same thing as you saw in the United States. There was
very little coverage of the genocide. It was the same
thing in Le Monde. In all of 1994, there were twice
as many articles on Bosnia as in Rwanda in Le Monde.
Now, how did we work? I checked in
our morgue, our archives the use of the word “genocide.”
For weeks, we used terms, such as massacre, killing, ethnic
cleansing, chaos, anarchy, murder, serial murder. It’s
true that journalists are not experts in genocide. It’s
true that many of them, of which I was one, arrived in Rwanda
with very little knowledge about Rwanda, about the country.
So we were very tempted, especially at the beginning to speak
of the civil war, to treat these massacres as a perverse effect
of the return of a civil war, and to link these massacres
to the previous massacres since 1959. By refusing, well
not refusing, but not understanding that this was something
totally new, that this was not a continuity of massacres,
but something new. The first time we used the term “genocide”
was April 20 by quoting Human Rights Watch. In the weeks
that followed, the word “genocide” was used by
the agency only when we could put it in quotes, and by quoting
another source. Thanks to Human Rights Watch, Oxfam,
Medecins Sans Frontières and others, the reality of
the genocide arrived in the press, no thanks to the reporters,
but thanks to the NGOs. They’re the ones who really
opened the door, and we have them to thank. We probably
avoided many errors because of these NGOs. So the word
“genocide” will become a word that we will use
starting on May 25, almost two months afterwards when the
Human Rights Commission of the UN finally adopted a resolution
to adopt the use of the term genocide to describe the situation
in Rwanda. So between April 6 and May 25.
Now retrospectively, we can see our mistake,
but the press in France, maybe it’s the same elsewhere
in the world, continued to be under the syndrome Timisoara.
Romania 1989. The discovery of mass graves. “Mass
graves” became a forbidden term for years. There
were no mass graves. These were the “communal”
graves from the neighboring hospital. We made that mistake
that time, and the editors in chief with good reason were
traumatized by that mistake, so we became too careful, with
the language we used. We were afraid to use the word
“mass graves,” and that is why in Rwanda, we did
not use the term “genocide.” In Kosovo,
we used the term of “genocide,” and in East Timor,
of course, there were terrible murders, terrible massacres,
but it wasn’t genocide. So, we afraid of making the
same mistake in Rwanda as had happened in Timisoara.
Press is a work in progress. Things change
every day. Yes were we too timid, too afraid, but the
mistakes continued. In June, the French press became
involved en masse in June in Operation Turquoise, and was
given the opportunity to access to many zones that were previously
restricted, areas where atrocious massacres had occurred,
but there again there was too much information. The
military landing, the “humanitarian operation,”
and in mid July one million Hutus went to Zaire and cholera
exploded in the camps. The humanitarian catastrophe
overwhelmed the real story of the genocide.
During the spring of 1994, and this is
a basic fact to remember, those who wanted to know, knew,
details arrived late, I know, but who wanted to know, knew.
Reporters were there, not all the time for most of them, but
the witnessses came from the country. Agence France
Press was always there. BBC was there. Reporters
in the field showed their determination they wanted to report,
to give a witness of this killing.
So if I had to answer Kuperman, I would
say today, “yes we missed the Rwanda genocide, of course
we did, but you wrote in 2000 we were writing in 1994.
Journalists are not sociologists or historians. History
is woven daily before their eyes. Please a bit of indulgence
for the reporters.”
Now, reporters were there. Pictures
were available. Texts were available. If your
reader, if the people you speak to do not want to listen to
your story you can’t force them to. They just
have to turn the button of the BBC, and the editors
can refuse to accept your reports. It’s up to
them to decide whether to use it or not. General Dallaire,
you gave a terrific interview to TFN, the very popular French
agency. It was broadcast in prime time. For such
a channel, it was very courageous. I’m sorry for
your troubles. I was very chagrined. The number of people
listening went down. . If you don’t want
to listen, you shut out, you shut your ears. That’s
what happened in Rwanda. In 1994 the information was available.
We say, “oh it’s the fault of the United States
that didn’t want to intervene. It’s the
fault of the government of France.” But you the
public could have done something. When I came in from
Rwanda in the summer ’94, I went to my little village
in eastern France, and the fisherman said, “Oh were
you there? Well, don’t talk about it any more.
We’ve had enough. We see these terrible pictures
at 8:00 p.m. at the time when we’re eating, but what
can we do? We can’t do anything.”
And I never spoke to anyone about Rwanda, not until when the
International Tribunal called on me three years later to ask
me for details. So then I understood that in the meantime,
nobody else had wanted to hear from me, and I had forced nobody
to listen. Thank you.