Writing Rwanda: cognitive dissidents
Writing about Rwanda is a perilous exercise, tweeting about it more so. Does the reporting of the Trevidic investigation signify the triumph of PR in journalism?
Rwandan Proverb: The truth goes through fire but never burns.
I run a digital news desk that is dominated by my long term interest in African stories so when the French government announced the pending release of Marc Trevidic’s investigation into the shooting down of Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane – the incident that sparked the Rwandan genocide – it was an obvious issue to report. Or so I thought….
Marc Trevidic’s report, based on visits to Rwanda and ballistics research, follows a previous report by French magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguière that resulted in charges against 9 of Paul Kagame’s colleagues – Kagame, as a head of state, was exempted.
Days before the publication of the report I made one small comment about it on Twitter and suddenly my Rwanda connected ‘followers’ increased. Many of them seemed very confident in their knowledge of the contents of the report long before it was published, some of the accounts were new, all of them took exactly the same stance in their tweeting. This fascinated me so I began to investigate who they were. It was an interesting if somewhat monotone cast.
It turned out that the report was not being released but a summary was presented to the lawyers of the accused and relatives of the victims followed by a press conference at the Palais de Justice. Officially these were the only people who would lay eyes on the summary.
Frederic Helbert, a French journalist described in Paris as basking in a faded past, began avidly tweeting before the participants emerged, telling us that the conclusions were clear.
Did he really ‘find himself at the centre of the story on Tuesday — seemingly with access to information that the world was waiting for’ as Storyful reported? Did Storyful not question the chronology of his tweets?
The chronological order of his tweets gives us a clue: he reports the conclusions in French before he later tells us in English, in the future tense, that the report will be released today and the victim’s families will learn a lot. This is several hours before the meeting is even concluded.
The press were only given access to the participants shortly before 6.00pm Paris time and it was a ‘bloody scrum’ as a colleague in a Paris newsroom informed me, yet Linda Melvern published an article in the Guardian at 8:18pm which even for someone immersed in the details is record-breaking if you allow time for the editorial and production processes.
So many rushed to tweet and publish despite only having second hand versions via Kigale. I was in regular contact with journalist colleagues in Paris and took a more cautious view:
Hulbert continued his prolific tweeting for the following 3 days producing more tweets on this one story than he has produced in the entire time he has been on twitter since August 7th 2010. Yet the only story he himself has published on this subject was uploaded for free to an open blogging site. That seems a lot of work for no payment for a self-described ‘grande-reporter’.
And so follows more of the same – floods of headlines declaring the ‘vindication’ of the view that Paul Kagame’s RPF were in any way involved in that fateful event and that therefore the only culprits were ‘Hutu extremists’. At this juncture, the BBC was the only organisation to report the views of Habyarimana’s widow or family:
It does not matter where the shooting took place,” Habyarimana’s son Jean-Luc told the BBC’s Great Lakes service. “What matters is who fired the missile,” he said.
A US journalist jumped in tweeting (without comment) the Rwandan government press release directly from PR Newswire. Is this the future of journalism? Cut out the middleman and proceed directly to PR Newswire without even a get-out-of-spin-free card? Why not re-tweet it from the Rwandan Government website so that it is clearly branded? Sadly, Reuters in Paris didn’t fare much better, although they later updated their story to also give a counter view from the Habyarimana’s family lawyer.
French newspaper Libération fired up a dramatic front page the following morning that was tweeted by @philquin – a New Zealander working for the Rwanda PR team. Author Philip Gourevitch tweets: “Rwanda Genocide Irrefutable” is LIberation’s headline. Seriously? That’s news? When was the genocide ever refutable?“ All of which is included in the Storyful version. Gourevitch only commented and was added after Storyful tweeted the link to the story and Kigali Wire re-tweeted it to him Yet best-selling author Gourevitch himself has been subject to criticism with Tristan McConnell arguing that he has clung to a whitewashed version of Rwanda’s post-genocide history. This includes the massacre of thousands of Hutus in the refugee camps in the DRCongo which the UN Mapping Report said could also be classified as a genocide. Oxford University Professor of Politics, Paul Anderson, says of Gourevitch’s writing: “it gave Kagame a credibility and a profile, portraying him as a force for good.” Later on Libération’s former Africa Editor, Stephen Smith, suggests that the Libération article is clearly partisan and they ‘jumped the gun’.
Storyful show us a picture of Habyarimana’s widow Agathe but fail to include her voice. Martin Plaut had tweeted Agathe’s comment so Storyful had no excuse. Despite including my cautionary tweet that the wires only reflected Kigali’s view, they too presented the news almost entirely represented by Rwandan PR. Thus the unreleased report generates such a tidal wave to one side of the boat that it appears to overturn. Or does it?
Bernard Maingain is the lawyer for those accused of participating in the shooting down of the plane. As such his role is to defend them and secure their acquittal from the charges. For him the report summary is unequivocal in proving his case. He speaks of alternative theories in the same tones as the Rwandan Government – anyone who presents an alternative theory is manipulative. Leaving no room for manoeuvre or debate the Rwandan PR machine calls them ‘revisionists’ and ‘genocide deniers’.
In an interview with France 24, Gerard Prunier says he “totally disagrees” with Maingain’s view that a different set of ballistics gives a different set of culprits. “Now we know where the missiles were coming from, who fired them we have no notion.” And here perhaps, lies the problem of Rwanda reporting. So much of the story is framed in terms of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ cast as if in a plot line for Hollywood. As Prunier comments: “another thing is that a lot of people think that it is either the RPF or Hutu Extremists, well the problem is that it might be both.” The story of why the Rwandan genocide occurred is hugely complex and despite the investigations still mostly untold. It is an ongoing and profound story that defies superficial glances because it pokes a provocative stick into the muddy waters of post-colonial geopolitics and political power plays. These international political machinations strategically plug themselves into local tensions and have helped produce violent eruptions all over Africa at various times.
Investigations have been blocked and documents are stored in US and European government archives that have not been released. These documents include a report by Robert Gersony that was commissioned by UNHCR and contained details of mass killings by the Tutsi RPF. Despite their belated expressions of guilt, these governments turn their collective heads and look the other way just as they did during the genocide, while massive questions float freely in the air dislocated from any anchorage in answers. Alongside this tangled web of competing secrets it is also an African story that involves a repressive government and one of the most sophisticated PR machines on the continent. Yet the initial findings of the Trevidic report are presented by journalists as definitive and ‘clear’.
Indeed the Storyful piece falls into exactly this trap not only in its one-sided representation of the Trevidic report but by straying in confusion into other people’s conjecture. Thus things that are not, at this moment at least, included in the Trevidic presentation are added to the article as ‘evidence’.
Also missing from the majority of the articles are the comments of the Habyarimana’s family lawyer Philippe Meilhac. In an interview with Hirondelle News Agency, he admitted: “the experts were adamant on certain conclusions”. However, he questioned, among others, the role of the sound expert, “who joined the investigation lately, strongly influencing other experts with his own conclusions.” It is worth mentioning that this expert, with only 3 years experience under his belt, has described the investigation as ‘complex’.
Linda Melvern argues that who fired the missiles will never be known and while her proximity to the Rwandan government raises questions about how much objectivity she can claim, she relentlessly raises the question of the role of France in the events and for this she deserves an ear. What is certain is that whoever fired the missiles was definitely an expert. SAM 16s require over 80 hours of training and considerable live fire practice to be used with any accuracy. Stephen Smith notes that the serial numbers of the missiles were traced to Russia who sold them to Uganda, the nation that spawned Paul Kagame’s RPF. In a clear demonstration of the efficiency of Rwandan PR, when I commented on this I was offered copies of ‘invoices’ for the missiles that would prove Smith wrong. Like an arms dealer version of Walmart it was a veritable shopping list. Do black-market arms dealers really issue invoices?
Certainly the earlier investigation of Bruguière appears at this point to be debatable. Bruguière’s work, which has sparked diplomatic fury has been questioned more than once. Although at this point in time no-one is in a position to say that it is totally invalid. In 2006 he resigned his post as a magistrate to join Sarkosy’s election campaign and later ran as a candidate for the same party. Trevidic is also under fire with his union USM alleging that he is facing many attempts to apply pressure or destabilization from ‘higher up’. The union claims that Trevidic is not getting new cases, was blocked from a training session in Niger and faced a disciplinary for allowing an unauthorised photograph. Clearly Francafrique is not amused.
Meanwhile, what has escaped most of the reporting is that the presentation by Judges Trevidic and Proux was a presentation of the key findings by experts in ballistics, acoustics, weapons and so on. There is now a 3 month window during which all parties may provide comments on the report of the experts; they may also request a counter expertise. After this the judges will continue their analysis which will examine testimonies and other contributions. This will probably include recent high-level defectors such as former Rwandan Ambassador to the USA, Dr. Theogene Rudasingwa, who has already alleged Kagame’s complicity. Only then will the report be considered finalised and until that time: “nobody is exonerated and nobody is charged” something that is in any case outside the remit of these particular judges.