"Rwanda: The Untold Story": questions for the BBC

A deeply flawed BBC documentary on Rwanda's genocide raises serious questions over the corporation's ethics and standards.

Andrew Wallis
6 October 2014

"There is no reasonable basis for anyone to dispute that, during 1994, there was a campaign of mass killing intended to destroy, in whole or at least in very large part, Rwanda’s Tutsi population… That campaign was, to a terrible degree, successful; although exact numbers may never be known, the great majority of Tutsis were murdered, and many others were raped or otherwise harmed." [International Criminal Court for Rwanda, 16 June 2006]

It is not often a documentary comes along that totally reattributes the historical reality of a genocide in a mere one hour. Indeed the BBC programme Rwanda: the Untold Story, broadcast at prime-time on 1 October 2014, managed this in a record ten-minute section of its airtime. Twenty years of scholarly research by academics such as Gérard Prunier, Linda Melvern, Mahmood Mamdani, Howard Adelman, Jean-François Dupaquier, Jean-Pierre Chrétien and Allan Thompson (to name just a few) was pushed aside.

Thousands of witness interviews for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), archived documents and judgements were made equally redundant. So were many official reports by the United Nations Security Council in 1994 and 1999; the African Union; and human-rights groups - especially the landmark work by Alison des Forges at Human Rights Watch and Rakiya Omar at African Rights.

Instead, the BBC entrusted the exposure of the "true" story of the genocide to two American academics, Allan Stam and Christian Davenport, who had travelled to Rwanda in 1998 and found everyone they spoke to telling the same story about the genocide. This, they decided, was not because people were recounting what had actually happened but because they had been brainwashed or frightened into a massive cover-up.

Standing in front of a scientific-looking multi-coloured "results" map of Rwanda, they flashed up impressively scientific-looking statistics of troop movements across Rwanda in 1994 to prove their point. In essence, they alleged that instead of 800,000 Tutsi deaths there were only around 200,000. Even more incredibly, they proposed at least 800,000 Hutus had been killed at the hands of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), as they pushed the genocidal Rwandan army and Hutu militias from the country. The accepted death-toll figures by researchers such as Gérard Prunier, Alison des Forges and Marijke Verpooten’s forensic examination in 2005 are simply dismissed. As indeed are all legal judgments from the ICTR where hundreds of investigators, scholars and acute legal minds have worked for two decades.

Edward Herman and David Peterson were to use the "results" in their book The Politics of Genocide, published in 2010. It was swiftly discredited by scholars who ridiculed both the methodology of the research and its suspected underlying motivation. For example, Gerry Caplan, author of the African Union report Rwanda: the preventable genocide, criticised Herman and Peterson as being part of an ideologically driven core of genocide-deniers, genocide-revisers and opponents of the current Rwandan government. The main aim of this small group, Caplan argued, was to shift the blame for the tragedy to their bête noir Paul Kagame, the current Rwandan leader, who has become for them (and some western media) a figure of intense, almost pathological, dislike. The BBC film certainly reflects this view.

The constant thread throughout the hour-long film was the desire to denigrate Kagame, through a cast-list of eight long-time enemies of the Rwandan leader. There was no balancing view, no attempt to analyse in depth or understand the history that brought Rwanda to the events of 1994. Instead viewers were treated to crushing tabloid accusations, pithy soundbites from the selected group of carefully chosen interviewees, sly insinuations and slo-mo shots of the Rwandan leader looking suitably diabolical. There was no new "untold" evidence to back up claims. Here was a chance for the highly complex, emotionally-charged Rwandan story to be considered on prime-time television. Instead it was reduced to a good vs evil parody that left anyone with knowledge of the country and its history, who surely included many genocide survivors in Europe, with a feeling of frank disbelief and anger.

What's untold

The event many see as the trigger for the genocide is the shooting down of the plane of President Juvénal Habyarimana on 6 April 1994. The film's cursory "explanation" for what happened was based on the claim by a single RPF defector, now in France, that he heard Kagame order the destruction of the plane. The programme also cited the report by French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, published in 2006. This report has long since been derided for relying on half a dozen Rwandan defectors, many of whom swiftly went public to say that their statements had been corrupted to meet Bruguière's requirements, and that they had been promised French visas should they comply with his wishes. Wikileaks subsequently showed Bruguière’s none-too-subtle political agenda. The judge is currently under investigation for perjury, withholding evidence and obstruction of justice in other cases he handled.

Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of the more recent independent and meticulous report in 2012 by the investigating judge Marc Trévidic that showed clearly the missiles were fired from an area controlled by extremist Hutu units of the presidential guard; nor of research in 2008 by the UK’s Cranfield University that came to the same conclusion. Instead another academic is extensively cited: the Belgian professor and vociferous opponent of Kagame, Filip Reyntjens. Again, no mention of the fact that he was a long-term advisor to Habyarimana and has not been in Rwanda for twenty years. All this is a mockery of supposed investigative journalism.

The two main beneficiaries of the film are high-profile RPF defectors: Theogene Rudasingwa and General Kayumba Nyamwasa. Their views are unchallenged and taken, in effect, as gospel. No attempt is made to explore their own backgrounds and current political ambitions. Nyamwasa was head of Rwanda's army after the genocide, and was accused both of trying to build a separate power-base within the military and of involvement in a series of corruption scams and illegal land-grabs while in office. Rudasingwa was said to be implicated in a lucrative financial scam while employed in the office of the president. Rwanda’s zero tolerance of corruption, as witnessed by Transparency International, makes it unsurprising that both fled the country rather than face the charges against them. The two men, along with two other defectors (Patrick Karegeya and Gerald Gahima), founded an opposition party in exile, the Rwanda National Congress [RNC], in 2010 aimed at unseating Kagame.

Nyamwasa’s RNC is alleged to be allied to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda [FDLR] in the borderlands of eastern DRC and Rwanda. The FDLR is made up of many genocidaire who fled to the region after the RPF pushed them from Rwanda, and has become synonymous with terrorising the local population over the past fifteen years, including the mass rape and murder of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. Its leader Sylvestre Mudacumura is wanted at the ICC for gross human-rights violations. FDLR atrocities inside Rwanda in recent years have left scores dead and injured from grenade attacks, with the RNC implicated in assisting funding and supply of arms to the group. Both Nyamwasa and Rudasingwa were sentenced in their absence by Rwandan courts - in Nyamwasa’s case not to life imprisonment (as the film affirms) but to twenty-four years for corruption, misuse of office, and threatening state security. Rudasingwa was given the same sentence in absentia.

The film features numerous such factual inaccuracies, misleading generalisations and omissions. There is no mention of the genocidal pogroms that caused hundred of thousands of Tutsis to flee between 1959 and 1972-73; nor of the fact that the RPF chose a military path back into Rwanda in 1990 precisely because Habyarimana had consistently blocked the peaceful return of the refugees to their homeland; nor of the genocidal massacres of thousands of Tutsis in 1990-93 by Habyarimana’s army and militia. The two terrible Congolese wars (1996-97, 1998-2003) are explained in a few short sentences though the motivation of the belligerents involved the highly complex interplay of six countries and dozens of militias, and originated in the border camps that were filled with genocidaire as well as innocent Hutu refugees. Both United Nations and Amnesty International reports have testified that these camps had become a launchpad for a planned re-invasion by the genocidal interim government and its forces.

What next?

The ethics of the BBC programme makers are extremely questionable. There was no evident attempt to talk to Tutsi survivors or survivor groups. The Rwandan organiser who assisted the film crew in practical arrangements was told it was purely a film about the twentieth commemoration; months afterwards he was called suddenly by the BBC producer, told the film was highly controversial, his life could be in danger, and that he should flee. The very serious implication is that the documentary makers were prepared to put his life, and that of his wife and children, in danger, without ever mentioning this to him until too late.

The site director of the genocide memorial at Murambi, Gaspard Mukwiye - who tends the place and the memories of its 50,000 Tutsi victims, and is himself a Tutsi survivor - was also persuaded into taking part in a film that effectively denied his acute suffering and personal loss, still vividly etched on his face. It should be noted the "repressive" regime the film portrayed gave the BBC complete open access to its media archives and to film wherever and whatever it wanted.

The BBC has since 2006 many times reaffirmed its editorial guidelines, including that "we should do all we can to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and impartiality in all relevant output." Viewers can make up their own minds how accurate and impartial this programme is and wonder if other genocides are next on the BBC revisionist menu, subsumed under its current obsession to "break news" and controversies. That is the best-case interpretation. It can only be hoped the corporation is not home to senior executives who actively hold malevolent views of genocide denial which they are misusing public money and privilege to promote.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData