Dove Magazine

Will the next UK parliament probe BBC on genocide denial?



Late last year, in a letter to Lord Tony Hall, the Director-General of the BBC, a group of scholars, scientists, researchers, journalists and historians expressed their grave concern at the broadcast of a documentary programme Rwanda’s Untold Story, (This World, BBC 2 Wednesday October 1), and specifically its coverage of the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi of Rwanda.

The letter pointed to serious inaccuracies in the programme and explained how part of its content promoted genocide denial. The programme was now being used to actively fuel genocide denial. The letter went on:

‘In broadcasting this documentary the BBC has been recklessly irresponsible’.

The programme had emboldened the génocidaires, their supporters and those who collaborate with them.

The letter to the Director-General asked the BBC to quickly realise the gravity of the situation; it asked the BBC to apologise to Genocide victims and survivors for the offence the programme caused.

Denial is an integral part of the crime of genocide. It is used to spread confusion and cause doubt. It aims to destroy truth and memory. It is intended to minimize the scale and status of the crime. It is used to try to justify what was done. Deniers do not reject the authority of the truth and oppose it. They pay no attention to it at all.

Denial is present at the planning stage, as the crime is perpetrated and continues long after the killing is over. It ensures the crime never ends. It treats the survivors with contempt and does terrible harm to them. For them, the Genocide of the Tutsi is not a distant event from 21 years ago to be commemorated once a year.

It is a reality with which they live every day.

There are 48 signatures on the letter of complaint to the Director-General including my own. The list includes the Force Commander of UNAMIR, Senator Roméo Dallaire, Dr. Cornelio Sommaruga Former President of the ICRC (1987-1999), and Bishop Ken Barham, OBE, who leads today’s 21stcommemoration in London.

The names of experts and academics from Rwanda, France, Belgium, Canada and the USare on the letter. It asked the BBC how such a misleading programme came to be made. It requested sight of the editorial decisions which led to its broadcast.

The BBC Director-General, Lord Tony Hall, was unmoved. The response came from the Acting Head of Programmes –BBC News and Current Affairs, Jim Gray, who wrote that the BBC categorically rejected the programme promoted genocide denial, and claimed programme-makers went to great lengths to avoid any such implication.

Gray invited the group to take their concerns to the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit – and the group did so.

On March 16 a detailed explanation was sent to the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit, a 15-page document carefully describing exactly how denial of the genocide of the Tutsi was promoted in the programme, how it changed the meaning of the events, how it tried to reinterpret the facts and change reality.

Those sections of the programme which breached BBC Editorial Guidelines were outlined including the commitment to truth and accuracy, impartiality, a promise to distinguish opinion from fact, fairness and respect. The BBC had failed its commitment to serve the public interest and the programme-makers had ignored the relevant section 4. 4. 9 concerning the handling of matters of international importance.

In the detailed submission the programme was shown to be materially misleading and biased. The journalists responsible for the programme claimed new evidence obtained from their own enquiries, but they had done nothing more than use discredited material produced by defence lawyers in the trials of génocidaires at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

The reliance by the BBC journalists on unverified witness testimony was queried and the following questions were asked:

What efforts were undertaken by journalists to check the most serious allegations made by a Rwandan witness, aged twelve when the events took place, and relied on as a main source?

Why was this witness unchallenged when she claimed that only ten percent of the Interahamwe were killers?

Why did the BBC give credence to an absurd suggestion by two US academics that in 1994 more Hutu than Tutsi were murdered — and allow their attempts on air to minimise and distort the genocide of the Tutsi?

Why did the BBC think it fitting to interview just one Tutsi survivor and why was the interviewer so disrespectful to him?

The BBC was asked to produce evidence it claimed to possess to support the accusation that the current president of Rwanda was responsible for the assassination of his predecessor.

While reporting a story of this magnitude the BBC journalists had nonetheless relied on suspect and unverified information, tired old stories from the defence case in the courtrooms. Why was the BBC actively promoting key elements of a story put about by genocide perpetrators?

The programme had clearly caused upset within the BBC, and among BBC staff. The programme was not repeated in the UK or internationally or on BBC iPlayer – even though BBC documentaries routinely have at least two outings. The lack of a repeat suggests certain disquiet in the organisation.

The programme seemed to have resulted from a lack of considered editorial judgment and the complainants queried whether or not the programme went through the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines process and, if so, whether the guidelines were rigorous enough in this instance.

Section 2.2.3 of the Editorial Guidelines which require sensitive issues to have careful consideration at a high level within the BBC seems to have been ignored. Whilst not necessarily aware of the denial aspect of the crime, the management of the BBC should surely have been especially alert when genocide is the subject of enquiry. Genocide attracts special status in law both nationally and internationally.

The ECU was asked when, in the course of the programme’s preparation, a referral was made.

Was there any consultation with BBC Editorial Policy or the Channel Controller, or the most senior management in BBC News, or the most senior editors with expertise in Africa and/or Rwanda? Indeed, did anyone at a senior level know about the contents before broadcast?

Last week, on Tuesday March 31, the ECU sent its final adjudication. It rejected our case in its entirety. The ECU determined no breaches in Editorial Guidelines took place and declared the programme justified for ‘good editorial reasons’, produced in a spirit of ‘journalistic inquiry’.

None of our concerns was addressed. The ruling failed to provide answers to our questions. No evidence was forthcoming. The ECU wrote that judgments handed down at the ICTR had ‘little relevance’ when considering ‘other accounts’ of the genocide.

The programme was simply presenting ‘dissenting views’, ‘alternative perspectives’, and ‘controversial theories’ about the Genocide against the Tutsi claiming all the while that this would not mislead viewers.

The BBC claims that the documentary did not damage the history of the Genocide of the Tutsi – we maintain it did just that.

One further appeal is possible – to the BBC Trustees. This will be set in motion next week.

Last year, to honour the twentieth commemorate of the Genocide against the Tutsi, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2150 (April 16, 2014). It was voted unanimously, including by the UK, a permanent Council member. This is what the resolution said.

The Security Council condemns without reservation any denial of this genocide and urges member states to develop educational programmes that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of the genocide in order to help prevent future genocides.

The British Parliament has been almost silent on the issue of the BBC programme. Perhaps a new intake of MPs after the forthcoming election might better understand the reality of genocide denial. An early enquiry could usefully discover how Britain’s public service broadcaster came to promote denial in the circumstances of the genocide of the Tutsi.

Prof. Melvern is a British investigative journalist who has written extensively about the Genocide against the Tutsi, including two books on the same subject.

This article is extracted from a statement made by Prof Linda Melvern at the event held in London to mark the 21st anniversary for the Genocide against the Tutsi.


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