BBC genocide talk show pulled off air in restive Rwanda

Monday May 11 2009

Our say: Voters queue to cast their ballots

Our say: Voters queue to cast their ballots last year for the second parliamentary vote since the 1994 genocide. What the BBC and others call opinion, the Rwandan government calls ‘intentional dissemination of genocide ideology’ into a delicate and still-healing population. File picture 


An old saying in Rwanda, Kwihaakabanga (don’t wash your dirty linen in public) aptly sums up much of the local culture.

It is a philosophy that permeates nearly all aspects of life in Rwanda.

For instance, the would-be Saturday morning broadcast of a local-language British Broadcasting Corporation radio show, discussing national reconciliation efforts since the 1994 genocide, was suddenly pulled off the air.

Imvo n’Imvanoh, a weekly programme broadcast from London, was asking Rwandans from across the globe what they thought of the country’s reconciliation efforts.

“I think reconciliation comes from people talking about their experiences,” said Jeff Timmins, a director of the BBC’s World Service.
Some of the commentary spoke harshly of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, an originally Tutsi-centric rebellion that grew up in refugee camps in neighbouring Uganda in the late 1980s.

When a Hutu-extremist administration in 1994 slaughtered nearly a million Tutsi in Rwanda, the RPF seized control of the country and formed a unity coalition with other political parties.

Because of its content, Timmins said, the tape was previewed by the minister of information the night before.

By the next morning, the Kinyarwanda and Kirundi-language transmission had been cut, and in a letter sent to the BBC and the British government, Rwanda accused the station of genocide denial and inciting divisionism.

The British embassy is now embroiled in the affair — the BBC Great Lakes Service is funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office — and according to both Rwandan and British officials, it isn’t ending soon.

“We don’t understand why the government responded in the fashion it did,” says Mr Timmins.

Rwanda agrees: The West just doesn’t get it.

The suspension of transmissions, which occurred just minutes before the show was due to air illuminates a longstanding misunderstanding of Rwanda’s political structures, partially caused by the country’s successful but idealistic marketing.

The BBC is not the first to find themselves at odds with this fiercely proud nation.

To an administration that has fought back in recent years against the French, Spanish and German governments, a United Nations investigation, and a swarm of advocacy groups and humanitarian agencies, it’s more of the same.

“All these groups are going to come in here and be on everyone’s case,” says Shyaka Kanuma, editor of the independent weekly Focus. “They don’t understand the genocide.”

And sure enough, they have come; Human Rights Watch released a statement last Tuesday calling the move “part of a broader pattern” of government intervention in media. Reporters Without Borders said, while admitting that contents of the BBC broadcast could weaken reconciliation efforts, that the move was “excessive.”

“It should be normal in Rwanda today for people to express their views on the genocide,” says Amvroise Pierre, head of Border’s Africa desk.

But it isn’t. Not here.

What the BBC and others call opinion, the Rwandan government calls an intentional dissemination of “genocide ideology”, the country’s kryptonite, into a delicate and still-healing population.

The editor of the show, Ali Mugenzi, a Rwandan Hutu who himself fled the genocidal government in 1993, had been criticised sharply in Rwanda for his work for years.

Britain’s embassy in Rwanda said Mr Timmins had a “rough idea” of what was said in his programmes’ reports. “He doesn’t speak Kinyarwanda, we don’t speak Kinyarwanda,” said ambassador Nicholas Cannon.

But the government and an alliance of local journalists say the BBC — like many before it — has been “bamboozled”.

“They won’t deny the genocide outright,” said Rwanda’s Minister for Information Louise Mushikiwabo of those invited to speak on the BBC broadcast. “But we know the hidden messages, and they know exactly what they are doing.”

“It’s become RTLM-lite,” says Mr Kanuma, referring to a notorious hate-radio station during the genocide that gave out coded instructions to death squads. “They are out there inciting people to fight.”

Since taking power, the government has routinely used the genocide as a premise for strict regulations of the press, especially radio stations.

There is a reason for that sensitivity, and it’s not something Rwanda likes to talk about. President Paul Kagame’s administration has promoted an immaculate image of the country. Clean streets, secure nights, and most of all, no Hutu or Tutsi; just Rwandans.

However good as an investment slogan, it is policy, not complete reality; a policy of narrative that the country’s psychological emphasis on nationalism requires — known here as “mind change”.

Comments made on the Saturday morning show, including that bodies found in Lake Victoria in 1994 were victims of the RPF, would shatter that image. It would muddle the clarity of the genocide, the government reasons, trivialise it, and thus deny it. An “absolute no-go” for Mr Mushikiwabo.

One of Imvo n’Imvanoh’s most controversial guests on the Saturday programme, former prime minister Faustin Twagiramungu, had a large fan-base when he ran for the presidency in 2003, but had his campaign shut down after being accused of ethnic divisionism.

His comments on the show, which allegedly include “refusing to kneel down” to the government, were some of the most inflammatory.