A British freelance journalist and researcher Dr Andrew Wallis, who has been researching the history of Rwanda for many years, recently wrote an article entitled “Rwanda: Untold Story: Questions for the BBC” in response to a BBC documentary entitled “Rwanda’s Untold Story” that was aired on BBCTwo’s This World programme on October 1.
The documentary has since sparked outrage, especially from the survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, who have accused the BBC of revising the Genocide that left at least a million people dead in a space of 100 days, before the killing spree was brought to an end by the Rwanda Patriotic Army, the rebels led by Paul Kagame, on July 4, 1994.
The New Times’ James Munyaneza last week spoke to Dr Wallis, author of “Silent Accomplice: The Role of France in the Rwandan Genocide” (updated Edition 2014) about the BBC documentary and why it’s viewed as a revisionist film.
Why did you take trouble to challenge the BBC documentary, questioning the methodology and motivation of the documentary?
I think around the world people would say the BBC is an independent, well-respected organisation known for its honest portrayal of the truth, it has balance and integrity. The BBC is worldwide, almost everywhere, including on the radio. So you expect their journalists to do reports that are of very high standards. Indeed, the BBC says in its own charter that it has to be fair, balanced with well-researched work.
However, it was quite clear that this documentary fell far from those standards. Not just slightly missed its targets, but really it was so unbalanced, so unfair, so poorly researched. I was surprised the BBC commissioned it. It was like someone at the top of the BBC either knew nothing about Rwanda or had some other rather malicious mandate to show about this film.
Secondly, genocide goes beyond issues of nationality or politics. It’s a human story and I’ve been coming to Rwanda since 1990 and have met a lot of people who have directly been affected by the Genocide; it’s bad when that human story is twisted for political reasons.
Do you suspect that someone at the BBC is out to hurt Rwanda and its leaders?
If you look at the history of western journalism toward Rwanda since the Genocide, there was a period or maybe the first 10 years where the Western media was quite open. There were good news stories, it was supportive of the government here and what was going on here. But slowly, that has changed; it’s like they have fallen out of love with the government here, especially fallen out, big time, with the President.
I think they expected to see Rwanda, within just a few years, to become a new fully-fledged liberal democracy that looks more like a European country, without knowing really whether that was the way Rwanda should be run or even if it was possible and when Rwanda didn’t come up to what they expected, their stance changed.
One of the biggest problems is the way the Western media have such a big problem with President Paul Kagame; they are just looking at ways of attacking him, and this BBC documentary really went full circle. So they are using the Genocide as a way to attack the man in power now.
For example, people may not like Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, they may accuse him of this or that, but that does not mean you meet him and say, “Oh the Holocaust did not happen or the Jews voluntarily went into the gas chambers.” You don’t revise the Holocaust because you don’t like Netanyahu.
The BBC documentary did what many of the revisionists and Genocide deniers are doing, which is dangerous and absolutely very poor investigative journalism.
What kind of democracy did the Western media expect Rwanda to turn into?
The European model that has been in place for hundreds of years. I mean, the jury is actually still out on whether it’s the best way. But they seem to think that it’s the only way any country in the world should be run. Yet recent experience in several countries where the West has tried to impose their model of democracy it has left bloodbath and anarchy.
You need to understand the history of every country, the colonial history, culture… If they had understood the history of this country, colonial history, the difficult period between the 1959, 60s through to 1994… In fact, Rwanda has never had a history of a working European type of democracy.
They have a certain sense of what they feel Rwanda should be like and how the government should be here, whether that is applicable to the country, whether that would work here is another matter; no one has really looked into that. There is no country in Africa that’s run like a European country, and maybe there is a reason for that. Would it work?
They just say “this is the model, this is the best model, this is the model everywhere in the whole world should have.” It’s easy to put that in a book or newspaper. For instance, this BBC documentary, the two people who made it (presenter Jane Corbin and producer John Conroy) they were in the country for four days. Not enough time to speak to enough people about the Genocide if you ask me, but they do a documentary without looking at the history and understanding it.
President Kagame is revered as a champion of Rwanda’s and indeed Africa’s sovereignty and dignity, what we refer to locally as Agaciro. Does that probably disturb the Western media, who may be influenced by colonial hangover?
I don’t know really, but I know if Rwandans got together, or your paper had a campaign to say that in the next British election, this party should win and they need to govern the UK in this way, the British people will say, “what are these Rwandans saying? What do they know? They don’t know our country, they don’t know our history.” It shows there is still a kind of colonial sense, a sort of slight feeling that “we are better than you, we’ve done it better for longer.”
You know the British parliamentary system goes back hundreds of years and may indeed think they have got a better system and its working better, but that may not mean that at this point in time, you impose it on Rwanda which has come through, not just 1994, but really has some dark times right back to independence and before. It’s come through a hundred years of conflict in many respects, not just 20 years.
Looking at the choice of the interviewees in that documentary (all of them are sworn enemies or known critics of the government), would it be unfair to say the BBC wanted to sell a certain narrative to its audience?
It’s a dangerous thing as a journalist when you go with a pre-conceived idea of your programme, you need planning but when it’s so pre-planned that you cannot see any other argument you are not prepared to talk to anyone with an account that may somehow negate your argument. So they’ve gone into this show, it seems, with the preposition that they want to destabilise, to try to cut aid funding to Rwanda, and really the programme is not about the Genocide, it’s about the person of the President.
And so, anything they can find, any people they can find who are going to attack the President is fair-game, and the Genocide, unfortunately, is a means to an end for them. They didn’t try to talk to any survivors. They stayed at Chez Lando (hotel), 50 yards along the road you have CNLG (National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide), did they walk in there to talk to the people? No. They had no interest in talking to anyone that might somehow question the narrative they had.
You cannot see the same story coming out on the Holocaust. BBC would never commission something like this on the Holocaust. As I said, they may hate Netanyahu but there is no way they would bring out David Irving and other Holocaust deniers and make a programme like this.
But Rwanda is a small country, it’s really not able to defend itself in terms of the media; it hasn’t got the budget, it hasn’t got political strength in the world – which Israel has. Or even Serbia and Bosnia, if they were going to go in and revise the Bosnian conflict and the ethnic cleansing there. BBC wouldn’t do it. So you question why they are doing it here. Why did they feel they would get away with it with Rwanda, but they wouldn’t dare to attempt it with the other countries?
So you think it’s a deliberate act by those in the high echelons of the BBC to revise Rwanda’s history in the name of undermining the current government?
Absolutely. In order to do a programme like this, it has to be commissioned. There is a commissioning editor. Someone has said ‘we will allow you to make this programme’, maybe the BBC partly funded it. And there are also questions, I should say, where the funding for this programme is coming from.
How about the fact that the BBC ignored valuable references and sources such as rulings and testimonies at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) on matters of the Genocide?
The simple fact is that it did not fit the pre-conceived narrative of the programme. ICTR, Alison Des Forges (former Human Rights Watch expert), UN and AU reports, et cetera, represent the truth, but it did not fit the narrative they wanted, which was to attack Kagame. The eight people who featured in the programme are known for their views, not so much on the Genocide but on the person of the President.
So the BBC went to different capitals around the world to seek out specific viewpoints from carefully selected people with a view to reinforce a pre-conceived narrative?
It goes beyond lazy journalism; it’s not because they could not be bothered to find other people to balance the programme, it’s because they did not want to find them. There was very much pre-conceived narrative in this film. There was so much information about what exactly happened in Rwanda in 1994 and before.
In the end, the film became a political broadcast for the RNC (Rwanda National Congress, a political party led by exiles who are wanted in Rwanda for various crimes). At least a quarter of the film was spent on interviews with Kayumba Nyamwasa and Theogene Rudasingwa. Are they the best people to talk about what happened here in 1994 as opposed to talking to scholars, academics who’ve studied it for 20 years, or lawyers, prosecutors, ICTR and other courts?
Just this year, you had the case of (Pascal) Simbikangwa in Paris (he was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison) and, again, the verdict, if you read the judgement in that, is very much that there was a genocide against the Tutsi. This is a statement of fact.
It is also interesting that, the last time I saw Rudasingwa on screen was via a video link in a court in London where he was testifying in defence of five men who were facing extradition (the five are wanted by Rwanda on Genocide charges). That was in April.
So it’s interesting that Rudasingwa and others are now being used as defence witnesses for alleged genocidaires as is Filip Reyntjens (a Belgian academic who for a long term served as an advisor to the genocidal government of Juvenal Habyarimana). These people go from court to court in France, Germany, Norway, the UK giving defence, even though normally they do not actually know the defendants; they use it as a way to promote the RNC and its views on Rwanda.
The same documentary also features two American scholars, Dr Allan Stam and Dr Christian Davenport, who disputed the official number of the victims of the Genocide and claimed that the US and UK had wrongly backed Kigali on the orthodox version of the Genocide . What’s your take on their claim?
There are few academics who share such preposterous views. There is this research by Stam and Davenport, that was done in 1998; it wasn’t used for another 10 years. No one would touch it and there are reasons for that. It’s not the people are covering up anything; it’s just that their research is full of holes. No scholar wants to associate themselves with work which is incompetent. I wouldn’t want to associate myself with such work, and indeed most scholars will not want to touch this research.
There are a lot of other research this programme doesn’t talk about. There is no attempt to look at the work of Alison De Forges, Rakiya Omaar (of African Rights), Linda Melvern (author of A People Betrayed: The Role of The West in Rwanda’s Genocide), the various reports by other people… it’s the most disappointing aspect of the documentary, the failure to balance, they make it sound like Stam and Davenport have the orthodox view of the Genocide. Those people have a very bizarre view.
In your article, you wondered why the BBC failed to mention the historical ties between Belgian professor Filip Reyntjens, who features prominently in the film, and the genocidal regime of Habyarimana…
It was omission with all of the eight people that were interviewed. All of them were taken at their word. What they said was taken as the gospel truth, without actually looking at the motivation behind what they are saying. A journalist is only as good as his sources; if the source is giving information and you take it as truth and you don’t research to see why he’s telling you that, then you haven’t done your job. If you want to have Filip Reyntjens talking, you need to balance that and talk to other scholars who would see his views seriously flawed, especially considering his historical background.
BBC claimed that President Kagame turned down a request to respond to the accusations raised in the documentary, does that justify its decision to air the programme as we know it?
I’m not sure that even happened, whether there was a proper request. But, assuming that was done, what could Kagame have said when faced with a programme like that? The probability is anything he would have said would have been twisted. If he made a decision not to talk to the programme makers, that would strike me as right. Again, what would Netanyahu of Israel say if they had a programme denying the Holocaust and he’s asked in 20 seconds at the end of the programme to give his response, what can he say?
And the choice of past clips and images of President Kagame in the documentary, they too were carefully chosen and edited to enhance their narrative?
One of the most interesting things which I didn’t express in my article is that two to three years ago, there was a film many people will have seen titled, “Rwanda-17,” which was a feel-good film about young Rwandans who had reached the finals of the U-17 Fifa World Cup in Mexico (2011). It was agreed that the BBC will show this film, it featured lot of clips of these young lads playing football, a feel-good film, sort of hope after the Genocide.
These were boys who were born after 1994 who are the hope and future of the country. They had a well known Sierra Leonean presenter, an excellent producer and, in fact, the film won awards at film festivals in Europe.
However, almost 24 hours or less when the film was meant to be shown on the BBC, a complaint was made and the film was pulled (from the schedule) and the complaint was, the film featured a short clip of President Kagame talking, with a big smile in his face, saying how wonderful it was that they had got to the finals of the World Cup and how it reflected on the bright future for Rwanda. And the BBC pulled the film because the complaint was that it featured propaganda of the Rwandan government. So BBC decided that “we can’t possibly show this now” because of the short clip of the President.
Could it be that the decision to pull ‘Rwanda-17’ off the schedule at the last minute and the one to commission ‘Rwanda: Untold Story’ were made by same person?
Is it the same person? That’s a good question. On the one hand, they have a film three years later, which is unfair, unbalanced, and historically incorrect; they are quite prepared to commission and show that. On the other hand, they had a short, award-winning, feel-good film about a batch of 17-year-old footballers which they pull from the schedule at the last minute because it features a short clip of a happy President. You have to say there are some double standards going on there. Are the only clips you are allowed to show of President Kagame the ones where he’s looking angry and menacing?
So the latest documentary did not come as a complete surprise to you?
A few years ago, BBC had an interview with Jean Kambanda, the prime minister of the genocidal regime who was convicted of genocide and given life sentence, and the interview was conducted after his conviction in a prison cell. (Kambanda is serving time in Mali. It’s quite incredible that you can have an interview with a man convicted of genocide on the BBC, not a small network, this is a worldwide network.
Again, you cannot see them being allowed to, for example, go in and give airtime to a Nazi war criminal. That was a strange decision. I think they have to look at themselves in terms of editorial standards, in the sense of balance and fairness, which the BBC has always said are its major watch words.
Are you possibly seeing a pattern of biased reporting about Rwanda by the BBC?
We are beginning to see a pattern and it’s a worrying one. Yet the BBC seems to also be split in what it believes to be the case. For example, the documentary showed commemoration at Amahoro stadium and Corbin was on the pitch, with her colleague, filming the President and his speech. At the other side of the stadium were three other BBC outlets; BBC News, BBC World Service and BBC World. They were also filming the same occasion.
It’s interesting to note that the two film crews never came together, Corbin never went over to her BBC colleagues, who were reporting about the orthodox standard position on the Genocide and what went on. But they never went over and say “oh, we are filming a documentary which is saying the complete opposite.”
So which one of the BBC do you believe? Do you believe the BBC World, BBC News, broadcasts that are going out daily, or do you believe Corbin?
From the documentary, we saw that Corbin and Conroy were given access to all the areas they needed to visit in Rwanda. And, now following the documentary, there are suggestions that perhaps the government has been too lenient and should start taking decisions such as blocking BBC broadcasts. What’s your take on that?
It’s very difficult. One of the biggest criticisms of Rwanda is about the media and the fairness and balance of the press, the access of the media outlets to good stories and bad stories, about what’s happening. It’s difficult if the government wants to show that it wants to work with the media, including international media organisations like the BBC, and there is trust from government, especially if it wants to show that the media here is free, fair and open, and wants to show that it is happy to work with media outlets.
Clearly, that trust is being broken. If the BBC is now banned or in some way stopped from broadcasting, there will be those in the West who will say, “we told you so, the Rwandan government are stopping free and fair access for the media, they have something to hide.”
So the government is in a difficult position here. What do you do; do you continue to give free and open access to the same media outlets or do you try to say “look, we cannot trust you anymore”?
But I think one of the legacies of this whole unpleasant business will be the BBC in this country will not be respected, will not be trusted, its news reports will no longer carry the weight that they used to. And perhaps not just here, but I think as this story goes around maybe other African countries and developing nations will start thinking “how can we really trust the BBC when they come in?”
Once that trust goes, it’s a competitive media world up there and before you know it, people are turning off the BBC; people saying, “we’ll no longer listen to BBC, we will listen to VOA, we would rather listen to France 24, to Aljazeera, to Deutsche Welle,” etc.
Could it be that the BBC was also desperate to tell a story that’s different from the orthodox narrative of the Genocide against the Tutsi?
There is nothing new in the film yet they chose to brand it as ‘untold story’ about the Genocide, which is not the case. Perhaps they were also saying “if it’s the old story of the Genocide, no one will watch it, but if it’s a conspiracy theory people will watch it.” It’s like someone will do a film on “Who shot President John F. Kennedy?” It makes good controversial film. Maybe the BBC have spent about half a million dollars on this documentary and they need to get people to watch it. The more conspiracy theory, the better for them in terms of viewership, regardless of the truth about what exactly happened.
Who have benefited the most from this documentary and who are the losers?
The winners from the programme are Nyamwasa and Rudasingwa, and a small group of their followers in the Diaspora, who have found a major news outlet to give them a platform.
The others are revisionists, including a small group of academics, journalists and legal counsel who represented those accused of genocide at the ICTR. For them, this documentary is a heaven-sent.
I think the biggest losers is the BBC itself; in its decision to show this it has broken its own charter and, more importantly, people now will question its claim to truth and impartiality, and may well feel that they want to tune in to other media with more honest and unbiased coverage.
The other losers are the survivors of the Genocide who, yet again, have been exploited and hurt by a western media organisation with no regard for their own feelings or history. That is the greatest shame of all.
What can the people of Rwanda and Genocide survivors, in particular, do to ensure that the world clearly understands what happened here 20 years ago and minimise chances of such malicious hypotheses thriving?
Education about the truth of what happened is the best and only way to fight those whose narrow political agenda would diminish or revise what happened. So the archives at the ICTR, at universities, in libraries both in Rwanda and around the world need to be far more actively promoted. For example, the Israeli government and survivors of the Holocaust have spent decades ensuring that the truth about the Holocaust is widely known with survivors talking to schools, colleges, universities and museums, and archives opened for easier access. Now, the Holocaust has become really impossible to revise.
Rwandans, too, need to promote the truth of what happened in their country, especially in the Diaspora. It’s asking a lot because these people have gone through a lot but it needs to be done nonetheless because conspiracy theories thrive on ignorance.