Bodies floated down the Ruzizi River as Eugene Cornelius made his way out of Rwanda. He left his car behind when it ran out of fuel. He gave all his money to the border guards – a bribe so they would let him out of his war-torn homeland into the safety of neighboring Burundi. Cornelius clutched his video camera, wanting desperately to document the horrors around him, but his fellow travelers warned him against it. Only luck had brought him this far. One wrong move could still get him killed. The young journalist had a reputation for criticizing the government – first as a newspaper reporter and later as an independent filmmaker. In many times, in many countries, his career alone would have been enough to mark Cornelius for death. But in Rwanda in 1994, he had another strike against him: his ethnic identity. As Cornelius fled across the border, people who shared his Tutsi heritage were being slaughtered by the thousands in what has been labeled the worst case of genocide since the Holocaust. In the days following his escape, Cornelius frantically phoned his loved ones. But every contact brought news of death. Finally, they told him to stop calling, lest the ringing of the phone draw the attention of the machete-wielding murderers outside. He was safe, but he was helpless. International news headlines focused on the World Cup soccer tournament and the elections in South Africa. The world seemed unaware that the Hutu people, who controlled the government, were trying to wipe out the Tutsis and anyone else they considered disloyal. It troubled Cornelius that the plight of his homeland was largely unknown. “With my little camera, I could make my contribution,” he said. But from Burundi, he could do nothing. So Cornelius made the only choice his conscience allowed: He went back. Now, seven years after a three-month reign of terror that left at least 800,000 people dead, Cornelius is one of the few experienced journalists left trying to rebuild the media system in Rwanda. The media became an instrument of destruction during the genocide. A number of reporters used radio and newspapers to spew hatred and encourage violence. Although many of these former reporters are now in jail or on trial for crimes of war, their legacy of fear and mistrust remains. Of the reporters who tried to objectively
report the truth during the war, almost none still work in Rwanda today. Some fled in fear and today live in exile around the world: in France, Canada and the United States. At least 38 others died.
THE OLD MEDIA
The literacy rate in Rwanda is only about 40 percent. It is unlikely that newspaper vendors ventured into primitive areas where Tutsis hid during the genocide. It is more likely that the people huddled around a short-wave radio, hoping for good news but hearing only propaganda. The extremist media before and during the genocide was led by Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), which was blatantly anti-Tutsi. Broadcasters called for massacre and even read on the air names of people who should be murdered. Not only soldiers did the killing: neighbors slew neighbors, friends turned on each other. Ignatius Tumwine Mugabo was born in Uganda to Rwandan parents who fled across the border to live as refugees during an earlier conflict, in 1959. He now writes for a monthly newspaper and works on humanitarian initiatives. “The media prepared both perpetrators and victims for what was to come,” he wrote in an essay that he posted on his Web site. “Perpetrators learned that killing a Tutsi was heroic. Victims learned that they had no right to live.” Mugabo recalls radio broadcasters announcing that the best method of killing a Tutsi or disloyal Hutu was “grabbing the neck like a leopard.” They also identified for listeners the “juiciest” sights for attack. On-air personalities praised those who had done a good job of killing and criticized those who did not participate. Reporters who refused to add to the climate of violence risked their lives for their principles. Goretti Marie Uwibambe began working for state-owned newspapers in 1976. One of her closest colleagues was murdered by the presidential guard at the beginning of the genocide in April 1994. “He used to tell … the truth. He was against discrimination and criticized the regime,” she said. Because the government controlled the newspaper where she worked, Uwibambe had to carefully monitor the content of her articles. An official censor reviewed all the articles, checking for anti-government sentiment and sometimes adding pro-government propaganda without the authors’ consent. “Most of the time it was lies, but I had to work there. I had no choice,” she said. “I had to feed my children.” In an effort to avoid conflicts, Uwibambe focused on the economy when writing for the government paper. To try and counteract the propaganda machine, she wrote free-lance articles about politics for Agence France Presse. “Because of my articles for AFP, I had problems during the genocide,” she said. Uwibambe knew she had been marked for death – both because she was half Tutsi and because her writings had been viewed as disloyal to the government. She could not stay in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, when the fighting started. Her only hope was to make her way south to the village where her husband, a Hutu, was raised. Uwibambe, her three children, and a young soldier fled the city on foot. Although the young man belonged to the Hutu army, known as the Interahamwe, he had vowed to protect the family. “I was a friend to his mother, and I took care of him when his mother died,” Uwibambe explained. He had never forgotten the kindness she showed him back when he was a boy, before Hutu and Tutsi mattered to him. When all he knew was a mother’s loss, a mother’s love. When guerrillas with machetes approached, the young soldier fired his gun to keep them at bay. Eventually, he commandeered the car of a dead man and drove the group the rest of the way. “There I also had problems,” she said. “People wanted to kill me because I am a Tutsi.” But her husband’s family managed to keep her safe until the Rwandan Patriotic Front, an army comprised of Tutsi refugees from outside Rwanda, ended the genocide. They helped set up a coalition government that still exists today as Hutu and Tutsi work together toward democracy.
REBUILDING NEW MEDIA
When Uwibambe returned to Kigali, the last thing she wanted to do was rejoin the journalism profession. But she was called to do so – literally – by the new government. Because so many people had been displaced by the genocide, the best way to contact people in post-war Rwanda was to broadcast messages to them on the radio. Uwibambe heard her name, along with the request to come to the newspaper for a job interview, on the government-owned radio station, Radio Rwanda. “They asked, ‘Don’t you want to participate in the reconstruction of the country?’ It would have been difficult to say no,” she said. So Uwibambe accepted a job as editor in chief of the state-owned French-language newspaper. Together with Cornelius and a few others who worked in journalism before the genocide, she is working to rebuild – both the decimated media system and the country itself. It hasn’t been easy. The media industry is plagued by a lack of financial resources. Newspapers in French, English and the native language of Kinyarwanda spring up regularly and die just as quickly. So far, none of them are published daily. There are three weekly papers and a few bi-weeklies, but most are monthly. There is just one functional press in all of Rwanda, a country slightly smaller than the state of Maryland. Most Rwandan papers are published across the border in Uganda, where it is far less expensive, but also far less convenient. But even that cost savings doesn’t allow for low newsstand prices. The average cost of a newspaper is about 300 Rwandan francs. A kilogram bag of potatoes costs about 35. Today, the Association of Rwandan Journalists boasts 76 members. One of its main goals is job training. This is accomplished through seminars and through placing Western journalist/mentors in Rwandan newsrooms. Cornelius and Uwibambe are among a very small minority who were trained as reporters and worked in the country before the genocide. Some of their new colleagues are Rwandan by blood but were born in other parts of Africa and never set foot in Rwanda until after the genocide. Some lived through the genocide but had different jobs before. Some entered the workforce after secondary school – the equivalent of high school in the United States. “We need people who are backed by qualifications,” said James Vuningoma, president of the journalists’ association. “Better writers, better journalists, better everything.” Vuningoma himself has a doctorate in African studies and worked as a professor before the genocide. Many members of his organization don’t know how to conduct an interview, write a lede, or fashion a nut graf. The notion of objectivity is completely foreign to them. There is no such thing as an op-ed page because most every story attempts to persuade. Time after time, these new reporters say they got into journalism because they have strong opinions and want to share them with the world. What they lack in training, they make up for in enthusiasm. Their passion shone through at a recent media ethics seminar at the Hotel des Mille Collines (“A Thousand Hills” in French). Billed as the only four-star hotel in Rwanda, the Mille Collines would probably rate only three in the United States. There is no air conditioning and the electricity blinks off sporadically. During the genocide, the hotel was a haven for hundreds of frightened Tutsis. When they ran out of water, they drank from the pool. The hotel manager refused to let the killers inside, and for some reason, none entered by force. The Mille Collines is one of very few hideouts where mass killings did not eventually occur. The new generation of journalists chose this place to discuss how they can help heal their country. One of the guest speakers at the seminar was Emmanuel Rushttingabigwi, a local UNESCO official. “Journalism is a practical tool that can be used for peace,” he told them. “The moment you finish your article, don’t just put it in print. Reconsider your position. That’s where the moral obligation comes into play.” A main theme of the meeting was self-monitoring by journalists. Association members hope that if they write an ethics policy and abide by it, they can regain the trust of the public and form a respectful relationship with the new government. “People here despise journalists and fear them,” Vuningoma said. “They fear them because of the past.” Many agree such fear has led to a restrictive new press bill that is now pending before the Rwandan parliament. If it passes, the law would make it illegal for journalists to publish or broadcast any material that incited genocide. The maximum penalty for breaking it would be execution. “The press can kill. That is why we need to make the press responsible and make the journalists credible,” said Cyprien Ndikumana, a media educator from Burundi who spoke at the seminar. In principle, many of the new Rwandan journalists agree. But they fear the results if their stories are misinterpreted. Ines Mpambara, one of the most outspoken participants in the workshop, is organizing a committee of journalists to speak to parliamentarians about getting the press bill changed. Mpambara runs the journalism school at the National University of Rwanda, located in the southern part of the country. Born in Burundi to Rwandan parents, Mpambara studied journalism at a Canadian college. One of the most well-educated journalists in Rwanda today, she is 24 years old. In October 1999, a Canadian colleague with ties to the fledgling Rwandan journalism school invited Mpambara to teach a two-month writing course. “I was needed more here than in Canada,” she explained. “What little knowledge I had would help a lot here. We have to build a generation of journalists and communicators. We don’t have any choice. Without good journalism, a country is almost dead.” The journalism school, created in 1996, is the only one in Rwanda and in the neighboring Burundi and Congo. This year, it was revamped and a new curriculum implemented. The course of study was designed by Steven Pasternack, a professor at New Mexico State University who spent a year in Rwanda on a Fulbright Grant. “The new curriculum proposes an emphasis on responsibility, accuracy and fairness in the journalism process, as well as thorough training in these skills,” Mpambara explained. The biggest challenge to the program is human resources. There are five permanent lecturers, but most are young and inexperienced. To increase the odds of finding qualified help, professors may teach in either French or English. Students are required to speak both. Mpambara is always on the lookout for Western journalists willing to accept a modest salary to help students like Collin Haba, 22. Haba was born in Uganda to refugee parents. He was so determined to study journalism in Rwanda that he spent a year learning French to qualify for admission. “There’s a lot of reconciliation to be done, and I think journalism can really help that,” he said. “A lot of development can be done using communication.” Haba has two goals for his career: educating people about health issues such as HIV and holding government officials accountable for their actions. He is unfailingly optimistic that they can be achieved. “As time goes on, with improved stories and improved journalism, the number of readers will increase,” he said. “I have very high hopes that things will change.” In this young man and his peers, 30 students fresh out of secondary school, Mpambara sees a glimmer of hope for the future. “All of them want to change how journalism is practiced in Rwanda,” she said. “I call them my little revolutionaries.”
Gina Barton is a reporter at the Indianapolis Star. She spent two weeks studying journalism and trauma in Rwanda on a grant from the Dart Foundation.