The British Broadcasting Corporation, better known the world over, as the BBC, is undoubtedly a great institution. For a number of years now, Rwanda, a small African country, has been at odds with this August news organisation. In the judgement of many Rwandans, the BBC harbours a malign agenda against their country. Could the latest story on the country by one of the corporation’s most experienced journalists, suggest that they might be right?
Few, if any brands are as recognizable as the BBC. Enviably, the corporation is able to use words like trust, reliable, in its promotion material. It has quite the reputation to uphold.
In any disagreement over the coverage of Rwanda stories, the corporation has wielded this reputation, with the implication that the Rwandan authorities’ objections are to the BBC’s mission to uncover truth, to “tell difficult stories” as the BBC put it, in response to what for Rwanda, was a particularly glaring offence, against that truth.
And because of this reputation, well earned over almost a Century, most disinterested observers will accept the word of the BBC, over that of the Rwandan authorities.
A closer look at three main areas of contention however, starting with this latest story, demonstrates that the BBC may have had a free pass for far too long.
Under the attention grabbing headline, “The loyalty Oath keeping Rwandans abroad in check” Andrew Harding, a veteran foreign correspondent, claims to have uncovered “a controversial oath ceremony that has fuelled allegations of an aggressive global crackdown on dissent by the authoritarian government of the small East African nation, dubbed the new North Korea, by its critics.” The words oath and North Korea put in invited commas.
The “oath” taken in the Rwandan High Commission building in central London, was, we are told, discovered through a “leaked video” on WhatsApp.
The story acknowledges that some of the people swearing fealty to the governing Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) party, were there of their own free will, but goes on to claim that many were there “under duress”. A startling claim is made, that failure to take the “oath” means that relatives back home in Rwanda, would be “targeted.”
Equating Rwanda with North Korea, is a trope much favoured by the loyalists of the former genocidal establishment of pre 1994 Rwanda. They know that this plays well with the media and some NGOs. It was a constant refrain by one such loyalist, turned self styled human rights activist, Rene Mugenzi, who seems to have been the main source of the story.
It is clear that Mugenzi cut and pasted what we know of North Korea, onto Rwanda. That he would do so, is only to be expected from him. But why would any journalist, let alone one as highly regarded as Harding, take such obviously tendentious claims at face value?
The truth of this supposed ceremony is in fact a polar opposite of how the BBC tells it. The research for it was done by other more junior journalists for Andrew Harding. Not for the first time, they seem to have started with a story they wanted to tell, and any facts that stubbornly got in the way of that, were bent to fit the narrative that had already been decided.
Far from anyone being forced to swear allegiance to the RPF, it is in fact the party itself that has been prevailed upon by Rwandans in the Diaspora, to allow them to establish a Diaspora chapter of the RPF.
It is one of the founding principles of the party, when still a movement, that all Rwandans are to be given a way to play a role in the development of the nation.
It is a principle that informed the new constitution of 2003, which was itself framed after consultation with ordinary Rwandans across the globe.
It is what informs ‘Rwanda Day’, an event which entails virtually the entire Rwanda government, starting with the head of state, presenting itself before the Rwanda Diasporas in different countries around the globe.
On the day, Rwandans and ‘Friends of Rwanda’ are briefed on the country’s progress, questions are taken, grievances heard, and everyone is reminded that Rwanda is more the Rwandan people, than a geographical entity. Wherever they are, they are assured, there Rwanda is. They are reminded of their rights, as well as their responsibilities as Rwandans.
In spite of these efforts and re-assurances that they are part of all that happens in Rwanda however, many Rwandans across the world still complain that more needs to be done, for them to feel included.
It is difficult for non Rwandans to understand the emotional attachment Rwandans feel for their country of origin. Many know what it is like to be refugees, stateless, often marginalised, disregarded, and at times persecuted.
It is only after the RPF victory over the genocidal establishment, in 1994, that for the first time in living memory, a Rwanda for all Rwandans would once again, come into being. To be a part of that, is not something any Rwandan takes for granted.
Even those who are too young to have known life as refugees, feel the reality they never lived, through their parents, older friends and siblings. The notion that they would need to be forced, threatened, into loyalty to country is quite bizarre to them.
For those who survived the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, their attachment to Rwanda has particular poignancy.
Donatille Ingabire was a young woman in 1994, and clearly remembers being holed up with others, in St Paul Catholic Church in Kigali, for days that seemed like years, suspended between slim hope and despair. Would the RPF fighters, or the killers get to them first.
When insistent knocks at the door announced themselves as RPF/Inkotanyi, the terrified refugees would at first refuse to admit them, fearing being tricked by the killers. She remembers how it felt to finally accept that she would be spared a gruesome end. She is incredulous at how the BBC could have arrived at the story they put out.
“I am proud to feel part of the RPF, and to give the undertaking that I will fight for my country, and against the discrimination, the genocide ideology and the divisionism, that so many of our young people sacrificed their lives fighting against. And I would encourage every Rwandan to ask to join” she says emphatically.
Over the years, the Rwanda government seems to have decided that there was no longer any use in raising its concerns with the BBC, convinced of the corporation’s innate bias. But the government was moved to respond to this latest evidence of that bias.
“Andrew Harding’s manufactured story plays into the BBC’s bias on Rwanda” read a statement, “BBC’s editorial line on Rwanda, can’t be distinguished from propaganda.”
It is undoubtedly difficult to divine why the BBC would have an agenda against Rwanda, and it would be all too easy to dismiss Rwandans’ conviction that such an agenda does exist.
But how else to explain such blatant twisting of the truth, by such highly skilled, experienced journalists? The melodramatic description of a shared WhatsApp video as something that had to be “leaked.”
The amateur video was in fact excitedly shared by people pleased that, finally, after years of persuading, cajoling, the RPF had relented, and allowed for a Diaspora chapter. Yet, for all the way it was presented in the BBC story, it might as well have been a glimpse into the goings on within some satanic cult.
There is something transparently concocted about the story, which a journalist of Harding’s calibre would have smelled a mile away. Why did his researchers not go beyond Rene Mugenzi’s claims, clearly their main source? They have to have been aware of his agenda. The story could only have been published, because they, as well as Harding, were happy to turn a blind eye to Mugenzi’s fabrications, for the sake of a sensationalist story.
The story stiches together by now familiar claims. From David Himbara, self exiled in Canada to avoid trial for various offences, including corruption, we hear once again, how villainous are his former employers. Whenever it suits him to have publicity, Noel Zibahamwe regularly surfaces, to claim that he is in fear of his life, because agents of the Rwandan government are trailing him around Australia.
The sad, tragic death of the singer Kizito Mihigo, inevitably, continues to be used by Rwanda’s detractors. And despite umpteen videos circulating on the internet, during which he incriminates himself in the acts of terrorism for which he is now under trial in Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina’s arrest is still held up as evidence of the Rwanda government’s irredeemable wickedness.
Harding and his colleagues will have more than suspected that Rene Mugenzi is little more than a fraudulent chancer, who is at last where he has always headed. Jail. The story which hinged on his claims, was held for weeks, until the courts had sentenced him to prison, for defrauding his local church.
For Rwanda, the latest story is par for the course, with the BBC. The BBC World Service Kinyarwanda section has been banned in Rwanda. Rather than address the cause for it to be banned, the corporation tries to push the programme into Rwanda, from neighbouring countries.
The programme, Gahuzamiryango, a somewhat incongruous name, given its meaning in Kinyarwanda, uniting families, was in real danger of becoming the Fox News, for the planners and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
Hardly a week went by, without one or other member of the so called Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) or their affiliate, pontificating at length, from their jungle hideout in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), on how they planned to “liberate” Rwandans. And Rene Mugenzi became a regular contributor.
After several failed attempts to persuade BBC management to understand their concerns, an exasperated Rwanda government, finally, had the offending programme taken off the airwaves.
Predictably, the BBC sanctimoniously claimed the Rwandans were failing to understand the need for journalistic balance, that it was legitimate to air voices from “all sides.”
The FDLR was formed by the planners and perpetrators of the genocide, including the Interahamwe militias, as an armed group to fight their way back into Rwanda. It is now proscribed by the UN as a terrorist group.
For Rwanda, entertaining their views in any way, was as if the BBC were to invite Nazis, or Neo Nazis on any of their programmes, in the name of balance.
Most egregious of all, was a BBC documentary in 2014, which sought to rewrite the history of the genocide against Tutsi. Provocatively broadcast on 1st October, the day RPF forces launched their armed struggle for national liberation, the documentary all but claimed that genocide did not really take place.
It based mainly on assertions by American researchers, Allan Stam and Christian Davenport, whose thesis was simple: when in Rwanda in 1998, they noticed that almost everyone to whom they spoke about the 1994 genocide against Tutsi, told the same or similar story. From that they concluded that Rwandans had been brainwashed, and the true story had to be found out, which they duly announced that they did.
What they postulated was dismissed by every other academic who had researched on Rwanda. Despite that, the BBC judged it worthy of a major documentary, “Rwanda, The Untold Story.” It would be fronted by one of the corporation’s most experienced reporters, Jane Corbyn.
Here too, any fact that did not fit the story the documentary had set out to tell, was ruthlessly excised, or circumvented in one way or another.
To strongly expressed protests from Rwanda about the documentary, the BBC would dismissively say, “We reserve the right to tell difficult stories”, to which, as American politician Patrick Moynihan might have said, you are entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to your own set of facts.
Then, as in this latest story, the BBC seems to want to have its cake and eat it too. It rests by its reputation, even as it perverts the principles that won it that reputation. Like Harding, it is well nigh impossible that a journalist of Jane Corbyn’s calibre, would have been unaware that she was subverting the truth. Why let the facts get in a way of an exciting story. The answer to that is in the adage from the great journalist, CP Scott, “comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
As it has done each time Rwanda has expressed dismay at the failure of its journalists, or programme makers, to live up to the standards the corporation professes to uphold, the BBC will almost certainly dismiss Rwanda’s concerns in this case too. It has the power, influence and standing to front it out, claiming to serve the very journalistic values that have clearly been perverted.
Such disdain however, will chip away at the corporation’s journalistic integrity. For Rwanda at least, suggestion of such integrity now draws derision. It is not an impression the BBC will want to take root.
The corporation’s newly appointed director-general Tim Davie, has vowed to put impartiality at the heart of BBC journalism. He could do worse than begin by directing the relevant departments to take a dispassionate look at their Rwanda coverage, starting with this latest tendentious offering.