Why The New York Times Got It Wrong On the Rusesabagina Story

Paul Rusesabagina in court, September 17

When I read The New York Times’ big article on the arrest of Paul Rusesabagina last Friday, I did so through the lenses of a student and practitioner of journalism. The piece breaches so many of what’s taught about professional ethics I truly was astonished.

I was astonished but I am not naïve. The New York Times may be the best newspaper in the world (by wide consensus, though a lot of other people will beg to defer), but apparently even it will not always rigorously observe the ethics that supposedly guide the profession. However I have not set out to judge the paper’s journalistic standards, and neither am I writing about whether Rwanda was right or wrong to arrest Rusesabagina.

I am only putting this particular article, “How the Hero of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Fell Into a Vengeful Strongman’s Trap”, under the microscope. Because going through the piece I thought it so egregiously bad I had to take it upon myself to do a public service and break down the numerous, deliberate violations of professional ethics that it’s littered with.

Begin with the headline. It tells the reader that Rusesabagina is “a hero” and that President Kagame is “a vengeful strongman”. Therefore we have “a good guy” on the one hand, upon whom a “villain” inflicts a trap.” Right off the bat, the editors of the piece have breached two of the cardinal principles of journalism: impartiality and fairness. Blatantly moreover.

Unless it is clear an article is to be published in the opinion or editorial pages it is not the paper’s job to tell the reader who for instance is “a strongman”, or not, or who is “a hero”. It is not a publication’s job to tell its readers what to think, period. The journalist is supposed to report the facts and let the audience make up their own mind.

Sure, there are many news organizations that care less about such matters. But we are talking about a paper that’s been acclaimed as the gold standard of the profession.

The headline writers at the foreign desk of The New York Times could have penned something like: Paul Rusesabagina of Hotel Rwanda Fame arrested in Rwanda on Charges of Terrorism. That would be accurate, informative, none-judgmental (either to Rusesabagina or Kagame), and still be a good headline. For their reasons, the editors chose differently.

Even The New York Times apparently is guilty of double standards when it comes to subject matter, or individuals from elsewhere than their societies.

One can be certain not even their most criticized leaders would be subjected to headlines like that. With Rwanda obviously a different standards applies.

Journalism much of the time is an exercise in choices. What facts do you put in a story, and what do you omit? Who are your sources, the people or groups you get your information from? Whose quotes make it into your article? What words – adjectives, verbs, and so on – do you use to describe the subject of your story?

These choices may be used in an array of ways, one of them being what’s known as confirmation bias – defined as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms, or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.” I point this out keeping in mind that generally professional journalists will not be completely craven, pandering, or biased. They do their best, striving to always be professional and respect their audiences.

Yet every once in a while there will be something like The New York Times’ piece.

The Rusesabagina article is startling in how it so completely goes overboard in its abandonment of journalistic good practices. So much so that it actually becomes what in the profession is known as a hit piece: an article so biased and hostile against the subject matter one is left with the feeling there is an agenda other than to inform or enlighten.

The article devotes a lot of space to telling its readers that “Kagame is a vengeful strongman who runs ‘an authoritarian state’ where he exerts ‘total control’; and where “political rivals are imprisoned, subjected to sham trials or ‘die in mysterious circumstances’.” It mentions the deaths of individuals like Patrick Karegeya in South Africa, or singer Kizito Mihigo earlier this year. It claims, “people disappear” in Rwanda. The article goes on to state that “Kagame’s troops are accused of plunder and massacres in neighboring Congo,” among a litany of other accusations.

But who are the article’s sources?

One of them is Human Rights Watch. This for instance is an organization that in 2017 reported that Rwandan security forces had killed “dozens of people”. Many of the supposedly dead Rwandans however began stepping forward, to indignantly proclaim they were very much alive.

That’s only a small sample of HRW’s methods when reporting on Rwanda.

If the The New York Times’ article were interested in looking at both sides of the story, they could begin with the words of Ambassador Richard Johnson, a former US State Department Officer that’s an expert on post-genocide societies whether in Rwanda (where he lived from 2008 to 12), Bosnia, and elsewhere. Writing in a 2013 paper titled “The Travesty of Human Rights Watch on Rwanda”, Johnson famously said: “What it (HRW) does on Rwanda is not human right advocacy. It is political advocacy which has become profoundly unscrupulous in both its means and its ends.”

It is a rigorously researched paper that shows how HRW has for years been fighting to undermine the Rwandan Government, one method being to tireless champion groups like RDR (which became FDU), FDLR, and others that are direct political heirs of the “Hutu Power” regime that perpetrated the 94 Genocide Against the Tutsi.

HRW has been strenuously advocating that these entities – that also are committed to violent overthrow of the Government – and their leaders be “let back into Rwanda’s political space”.

Nevertheless the authors of The New York Times’ piece do not bother to qualify what HRW has to say about Rwanda; to at least show the organization’s sympathies for groups that also are the same ones devoted either to negating and trivializing the Genocide, or actually accusing Kagame of starting it.

The paper moreover fails to mention that Rusesabagina’s MRCD and its armed wing are part of the coalition of political heirs of the genocidal regime that fell in 94.

The article’s source for the claim that “Rwandan troops have committed atrocities in DRC’ is the “UN-mapping report” of October 2010. This document purported to detail human rights abuses in the Congo between 1993 to 2003. But the draft, which accused Rwanda of “genocide against the Hutu”, was found to be so flawed in its methodology and sourcing it was rejected and discredited. Individuals like former EU Special Envoy to the Congo Aldo Ajello called it “illegitimate”.

Michael Scharf, a US law professor was horrified that “a none-judicial organ could allege that “genocide” had been committed. Everyone that read it denounced it. It turned out some of the report’s authors were in cahoots with the very groups, the genocidaires that the RPF defeated, who then declared war on Rwanda from the jungles of DRC and elsewhere.

That the authors of The New York Times’ piece use the claims of HRW or the “Mapping Report” but nothing on what Rwandan authorities have to say about them shows their confirmation bias is pretty strong.

Bias also is seen in the fact they omit to mention that Kizito Mihigo was serving a 10-year prison sentence, before Kagame offered him presidential clemency in 2018. Mihigo had done four years and was spared six. This would at the very least raise doubts on accusations that “Kagame killed him.” Or what the autopsy report said: that his death was through self-strangulation.

The article omits all that, which it does with its many other accusations.

But when it comes to the things Rusesabagina is accused of, they lavish him with acres of space to absolve himself. “We are not a terrorist organization,” Rusesabagina is quoted about his groups MRCD and its FLN militia, though there is video evidence of the man announcing violent conflict against the government.

When the article acknowledges that indeed Rusesabagina’s group has been accused of terrorist attacks, one gets the feeling this only is for appearances of “balance” – not to be mistaken for real, objective impartiality. The authors helpfully provide an “on-the-one-hand-this-but-on-the-other-hand-that” justification for Rusesabagina. The article basically is saying: “on the one hand Rusesabagina’s group killed people, but on the other he had no choice except armed struggle.”

It is easy to imagine that the lives of the Rwandans killed by Rusesabagina’s groups come a distant second to the fact Rwanda has dared arrest the hero of Hotel Rwanda. The impression grows stronger when one realizes that in the entire piece (of 3500 words) the victims of FLN attacks in southwestern Rwanda in 2018 get exactly one sentence.

One Josephine, the widow of Fidel Munyaneza a schoolteacher of Nyabimata is indirectly quoted saying that her husband was shot in the back. To The New York Times, it seems far more important to safeguard the myth of “the Schindler of Rwanda that saved over 1200 refugees at risk of his own life”, “the humanitarian”, “the opposition activist” and so on, than anything else.

Even though people that knew, or saw first hand what the situation at the hotel was have long declared the man’s heroic status fraudulent. Among these are individuals like Rwandan author Edouard Kayihura, UNAMIR peacekeeping force Commander Romeo Dallaire, Senegalese army officer Amadou Deme who served in the intelligence team of UNAMIR, among many others.

But apparently what these individuals have to say, too, must be withheld from The New York Times’ readers.




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