Rwanda Forgotten

They are living proof. Some walk the streets of Toronto all too aware that most of us have not and will not, ever, know of the torment they suffer. They are survivors of the Rwandan genocide, a cataclysmic human failure that claimed the lives of nearly one million people and left millions more scarred for life. It started on April 7, 1994. But if one was to rely on any of yesterday's local or national dailies for news of it, the genocide may as well have never happened.

Retired Lt. General Romeo Dallaire's firsthand account of his "handshake with the devil" in Rwanda is the top non-fiction paperback in Canada, and has been for several weeks, according to the Globe and Mail. Hotel Rwanda, Terry George's film about Rwanda's Oskar Schindler, has had modest success at the box office and won last year's coveted Toronto International Film Festival audience award.

It is obvious that Canadians care about what happened in Rwanda. So why was the 11th anniversary of the genocide not mentioned?

For the past two years, I have worked on a documentary project called "Media on Trial" that seeks answers to that question and others about the media's role in the Rwandan genocide. It is a story still being played out and one that provides an opportunity to explore why we digest the news that we do.

It starts with how the media was abused in Rwanda in the early nineties by a powerful few intent on the annihilation of those identified as Tutsi. A campaign of dehumanization took place in the country's newspapers and on its airwaves to make the idea of killing one's neighbour palatable.

Radio intermixed popular music with racist rhetoric. Newspaper editorials frequently referred to Tutsis as inyenzi, cockroaches.

In December of 2003, three men were convicted of using media to incite genocide, the first such ruling since the Nuremburg trials. Radio and newsprint had made it possible for Rwanda to rival Auschwitz in killing efficacy. Of the nearly one million people killed in the one hundred days that it took the Tutsi dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front army to stop the genocide, it has been estimated that most of those were killed in the first three weeks. Such efficacy would not have been possible without announcers broadcasting the names of those that were to be killed and where they could be found.

It is not a stretch to claim that their actions were an assault on media as a whole. Busy people everywhere rely on what is reported on newscasts and what they read in newspapers, needing, and believing, it to be fair and accurate. Yet coverage of the so-called "Media Trial" convictions, never mind that of the actual genocide, proved mute.

The BBC's Mark Doyle was one of the few journalists who reported on the genocide from inside Rwanda. In an interview he gave me last year, he alluded to one of the reasons why the genocide did not capture the world's attention.

"They [the BBC] won't run it. . . . People don't want to see machete-riddled bodies at tea time. . . . so there's no point putting (the bodies) in the piece."

"The decision has been made, which I don't agree with, that it's ok to show weapons of war but not the consequences of them on television," Doyle added.

I am not critical of the BBC's coverage of the Rwandan genocide or its aftermath. It was one, and quite possibly the only, international network to make the genocide a regular part of its newscasts as it unfolded, and it has aired several documentaries and stories about it since. Doyle reveals the dilemma highly conscientious news editors everywhere are paid to confront every day: choosing what matters and why.

The news editor's aversion to gore is something I learned about early in journalism school. A classic justification is their concern that the average person will be turned off by horrific scenes of death. Consequently, that person will miss what the point of showing the gore was, and from that point onwards will likely ignore anything related to what was shown. Ultimately, it is argued, including gruesome details in news items defeats the purpose of informing people (and selling newspapers.)

Yesterday, when it mattered, news editors in Canada forsook Rwanda and its victims in favour of continuing coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II. Incidentally, he was the leader of a Church that has yet to acknowledge its role in the Rwandan genocide.

During the hundred days of slaughter, Catholic priests in Rwanda turned their churches into virtual gas chambers, leading Tutsi inside and then notifying the death squads that it was OK to begin the hard work of eliminating the hundreds of people huddled together screaming in terror for their lives. The Vatican knew what was going on, but did and said nothing. Among the now stale stories being replayed recounting Pope John Paul II's legacy, yesterday, especially, the role of the Catholic Church in Rwanda would have made for a compelling news story.

The anniversary of the Rwandan genocide passed without a flicker of interest from the Canadian media. The nearly one million dead whose mutilated bodies are still being discovered all over Rwanda must be rolling in their mass graves.

If you are interested in discussing media free of advertising and censorship, I encourage you to visit the new "Media on Trial" Web site and forum at Register to have your say about what matters and why. Look for exclusive interviews with news editors, journalists, media professors, and eye witnesses to hate media in Rwanda and elsewhere, coming soon.

There are upcoming memorials planned by Toronto's Rwandan community but no dates have been finalized. Please check back for updates.

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