By Tom Rhodes
A screenshot of the BBC Two documentary Rwanda’s Untold Story, which led to the BBC’s Kinyarwanda radio service being suspended in Rwanda.
When the BBC released its televised documentary “Rwanda’s Untold Story” in early October, which questioned official accounts of the 1994 genocide, a massive outcry inside and outside Rwanda’s borders ensued.
Locals and foreigners alike protested the documentary‘s findings, parliamentarians demanded a ban and legal action, and authorities summarily suspended BBC’s vernacular Kinyarwanda news service indefinitely on October 24.
While some local journalists denounced and others applauded the BBC’s conclusions, few supported the ban on the nationwide news service.
“So us journalists are very much outraged given [the documentary’s] complete lack of balance,” Gonzaga Muganwa, from the privately owned news magazine Rwanda Dispatch, told me. “However, this doesn’t mean the suspension of the BBC is right either.”
The main bone of contention raised by locals and foreigners alike was the documentary’s exclusive focus on the research of two American academics that claim far more Hutus died in the genocide than Tutsis.
Those who experienced the horrors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, including journalists and academics who citedkillings of an estimated 800,000 predominantly Rwandan Tutsis in just 100 days, were understandably upset by the BBC’s television documentary.
The documentary “opens old wounds, spit(s) on the memories of over a million dead,” an editorial in the pro-government English daily, The New Times, said. “Would BBC give a platform to Nazi sympathizers to rewrite the history of the Holocaust in the name of free speech? Not in our lifetime.”
Rwandan students, widows of the genocide, and civil society groups calledon lawmakers to act, demanding a ban on the BBC and an apology. Prominent foreign academics, among others, co-signed a protest letter to BBC headquarters claiming the documentary’s findings were “absurd” and played into the narrative of genocide deniers. The BBC’s detractors, however, did not challenge other delicate issues cited by the documentary, such as the ruling party’s poor record in human rights.
On October 22, Rwandan parliamentarians and senators approved a resolution to charge the documentary makers with genocide denial, and revoke the BBC’s license to broadcast in the country, according to news reports. The state-run telecommunications and broadcast regulator, the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority accused the BBC of “re-writing Rwandan history” and banned BBC’s Kinyarwanda radio service two days later, news reports said.
A BBC spokeswoman reacted the same day, arguing that the documentary contributed to the understanding of the history of the country and refuting accusations of bias. She said the BBC made repeated requests for comment from the Rwandan government that were turned down, news reports said.
Whichever side of the issue one takes, banning the BBC’s Kinyarwanda Great Lakes Service is not only illogical, but illegal too. Last year, Rwanda passed a new media law that moves responsibility for regulation from the state to the Rwanda Media Commission, an independent regulator.
While the head of the commission, Fred Muvunyi, considered the BBC program “insulting,” he also told me the government had overstepped its mandate. “Parliament’s recommendations to revoke the license should have come first to the commission,” Muvunyi said. “If RURA received the complaints; they should have referred them to the commission as they did before to complaints raised against Christian and Muslim radios.”
President Kagame does not appear to support the ban either. Kagame told parliament earlier this month that the BBC has chosen to “tarnish Rwandans, dehumanise them.” But he also said in a speech given this month to international think-tank Chatham House, based in London, that “the BBC can say whatever they want to say. They don’t have to say or do whatever they do or say because that is right. They say or do whatever they say or do because they can.”
The ban on BBC’s Kinyarwanda Great Lakes Service for a contentious television documentary misses the target. “The Kinyarwanda service was suspended but we all know that the documentary was on BBC Two,” Muvunyi said. “If they have reasons to suspend BBC Kinyarwanda; they should indicate the basis of their decision.”
The BBC told CPJ that the now-banned Great Lakes Service had no part in making the documentary.
Public criticism of the Great Lakes Service made by Rwandan officials through speeches took place long before the documentary was released, local journalists told me.
The same sources suspect the controversial documentary simply gave authorities a pretext to silence the service. After the documentary was broadcast, a columnist in TheNew Times claimed, without providing any detail, that the BBC Great Lakes Service was partly made up of non-journalists, even suspected perpetrators of the genocide–an accusation that staff members have denied.
This is not the first time Rwandan authorities have suspended the service. In 2009, Rwanda banned BBC’s Kinyarwanda service for two months over alleged biased reports concerning the genocide. The former information minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, warned that the BBC would likely be “definitively and unconditionally” banned if it did not reconsider its editorial approach to the genocide, according to news reports.
Anastase Shyaka, head of the Rwanda Governance Board, a parastatal organization charged with implementing national media policy, said the suspension of the Kinyarwanda radio programs was an effective measure against the BBC since the Kinyarwanda service had the greatest reach across the country, news reports said.
Banning the BBC service assists no one. The public, once again, are denied access to an important national news source while the government, by failing to reply to its critics and simply banning them, inadvertently appears as if it has something to hide.
“The suspension of the BBC doesn’t hold any national interest at all,” Charles Kabonero, the exiledformer chief editor of the critical weekly Umuseso, told CPJ. “The national interests would be in the regime facing the documentary and clearing the air on the issues raised.”
Tom Rhodes is CPJ’s East Africa representative, based in Nairobi. Rhodes is a founder of southern Sudan’s first independent newspaper. Follow him on Twitter: @africamedia_CPJ
CPJ is an independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide.
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