Three Faces Of Rusesabagina, Western Media Myths And Lessons For Rwanda
In the case against Rusesabagina, Western media reaction to his sentencing has been woefully predictable. Tattered cliches, worn stereotypes, and attacks against Rwanda, were once again, preferred for informed analysis of the case.
It is worth reflecting that what we lump together as ‘Western media,’ is of course individual journalists and different media houses, some of which have a valid claim to being some of the best, if not the best in the world.
It includes enviably skilled, experienced journalists, many of whom must surely wonder at the questionable journalism that characterises so much of the coverage to which Rwanda is subjected.
Their privileged position, and undoubted expertise, makes their dereliction of basic journalistic norms when it comes to Rwanda, especially, all the more culpable.
It will come as little comfort to Rwandans, but Rwanda suffers similar treatment to much of the rest of Africa. The normal rules that govern journalism are waived, when reporting on the continent.
At times, it is a matter of expense and logistics. Having a correspondent on the spot to properly research a subject is expensive, and so, journalists rely on Non Governmental Organisations, or NGOs, who have their own spin on the story, as experts.
What is then published, or broadcast, is more their story, than the true reality on the ground. And heaven forbid that any African should be regarded as the expert on their society.
Often however, it is also a question of attitudes towards Africa and Africans. Lurid claims about “enforced disappearances” imprisonment and murder of journalists, are claimed and taken at face value, because, well, it is what you would expect in Africa.
Little or no attempt is made to check, let alone cross check such serious allegations. And once the narrative has taken root, the manufactured becomes truth. To use a social media term, there is then a pile on.
There is now a pile on, on Rwanda, and the pile gets ever higher, with the truth about the country getting buried ever deeper under it.
Since 1994, after Rwanda was delivered from the murderous grip of a genocidal establishment, Rwandans have had ample justification to feel at the sharp end not only of the contemptuous treatment, in the way they are misrepresented, but also, of an apparent degree of conscious malice towards their country, and in particular, their head of State, President Paul Kagame.
The sloppiness, and absurdity of some of the reporting is such that the able journalists producing them could only perpetrate it intentionally.
The arrest of Rusesabagina, has brought this into sharp relief. Lawyers could pore over the detail of his case for years, as is their wont. But in the last analysis, even they, along with any fair minded, thinking person, would have to conclude that the evidence against him was overwhelming.
A twenty-five year sentence is indeed heavy, but the real wonder, is why the judge denied the prosecution’s demand for a life sentence.
In any Western country, today, Rusesabagina’s broadcasts alone, would have fallen foul of a plethora of laws, enacted to fight the “War on terror” long before he got round to putting his words into action.
Yet, at his conviction, and sentencing, every Western news organisation led with, “Hotel Rwanda Hero…” The Rwanda government, accuses him of “terrorism.”
Note that it is always the government, not the Rwanda courts, since of course, the next claim would be that the Rwanda justice and the Rwanda government, are one and the same thing.
And Rusesabagina’s acts of terrorism are always in quotation marks, a prelude to dismissing them, with the assertion that the “real reason” is that “he is a critic of Kagame.”
The Guardian newspaper emphasises that he is a “dissident” then tendentiously meanders into claims about Rwanda’s possession of the so called Pegasus spyware, the murder of former director of Rwanda Intelligence, Patrick Karegeya, never once mentioning evidence against Rusesabagina.
Let the record show, to borrow from the American judicial system, that serious news organisations, readily, intentionally, dismissed evidence gathered by at least two judicial systems, Rwanda, and Belgium, the defendant’s repeated self incrimination, in favour of a fiction film, which portrays the defendant as a hero.
It would be risible, were it not so grave. Thanks to Rusesabagina and his fellow travellers, nine young Rwandans were sent to their graves prematurely. Others are disabled for the rest of their lives. Yet, if you were promised a million for every mention of the actual evidence against him, or mention of victims of his crimes, in a Western newspaper, or broadcast, you would die a pauper.
The entire coverage, from the moment of Rusesabagina’s arrest amounts to this: the story in a fiction film, Hotel Rwanda, whatever his family, lawyers, supporters and he himself says in his defence. All taken at face value. The only time the Western media has been at variance with him, is when he incriminates himself. Then, there is a deafening silence from them.
There is an interview, now online, as almost all of them are, where in the same breath as praising his humanitarian heroism, an American interviewer asks Rusesabagina, whether he did indeed charge the refugees for staying at the Hotel des Mille Collines.
“It was a hotel, of course, they had to pay” he replies dismissively. The interviewer smiles charmingly, and continues to ask about his courage in defence of the same refugees he had just admitted to fleecing.
The hotel became the headquarters of what remained of the UN peace keeping forces. As the murders began, desperate people made their way there, in a desperate hope of escaping the murderers stalking every corner of the land. The owners of the Hotel, Sabena, sent unequivocal instructions, in writing, that no one taking refuge at their hotel, was to be charged for anything.
The message was widely reported at the time, it seems however, not to have reached the “Hotel Rwanda hero.” Although it might be argued that given the circumstances, any decent person would not have needed such a message to act accordingly.
Rusesabagina’s authority at Hotel des Mille Collines, it should be clear, derived from his friends in the genocidal government. He was there at their behest, from the hotel he managed, Hotel Diplomat.
His first act on arriving at the Mille Collines, was to cut the only telephone line connecting the hotel to the outside world, followed by establishing a communications centre for the genocidal government, at the top of the hotel.
In the words of Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian head of the ill fated UN Mission in Rwanda, Hotel Rwanda, in which Rusesabagina was portrayed as a humanitarian hero, who saved over 1,000 lives, was “revisionist junk.” A view shared by genocide survivors, and anyone else who was there.
Virtually, the only bit of accurate information coming out of the film, and the subsequent canonisation of Rusesabagina, by Western commentators and journalists, is that he was at the Hotel. That much is true.
None of this however, cuts any ice with Western media. And leading the charge, has been the New York Times. No less than four journalists co-wrote the feature denouncing Rusesabagina’s conviction. They throw caution to the wind, casting off what may have remained of the pretence to adhere to the facts.
“How the Hero of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Fell into a vengeful Strongman’s Trap” droned their headline. It is at that, that any reader with any interest in the truth about the story, should have saved their money, and something infinitely more important, their time, and carefully laid the paper at the bottom of the bird cage.
The paper imagined a preferred scenario, and ever since, has attempted to superimpose it on the reality. “We must be in awe of people like Paul” they quote the Hollywood Actor, Angelina Jolie, as saying.
The New York Times is at least doing as Hollywood royalty commands, the rest of us however, should be guided by the truth. In any case, to be fair to Ms Jolie, she most likely has no idea where Rwanda is on the world map. She was given a story, and asked to sprinkle star dust upon it, which she duly did.
The New York Times should know better. Instead, they have taken up from where the film left off. What they are giving their readers is in effect, Hotel Rwanda, The sequel, a device so beloved of Hollywood’s money men. Where needed, they even offer a prequel, going to Rwanda, pre Hotel Rwanda, and creating what would be expected of a heroic Rusesabagina.
Where the film left gaps, they literally create a story to perpetuate the hero narrative, and excise where the facts contradict that narrative. From the outset, they seek to erase his connection to the armed groups, he himself has acknowledged, and to which evidence ties him.
The arrest of Rusesabagina is based not on his leadership of an armed group, they tell us, but on his criticism of President Kagame. The “strongman,” a cliché no Western journalist seems able to resist.
Not even Rusesabagina’s own admission is allowed to get in the way of the paper’s efforts to create a saintly, heroic figure. And where there is a hero, there must of course, be a villain, and the role is given to Rwanda’s head of state.
Rusesabagina is “a human rights icon who warned about the horrors of genocide and offered a living example to standing up to it.” That would indeed be something, if it contained a grain of truth.
In the early 90s, as the so called Hutu Power’s much publicised “final solution” for the “Tutsi problem” was being prepared, Rusesabagina, transferred his party affiliation from then President Habyarimana’s extremist MRND (National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development), now deemed to be too soft on the Tutsi, to the even more extremist faction of the newly recreated MDR (Republican Democratic Movement).
Not even after the mass murder of over a million men, women, and children, would he waver from the ideology that justified, and still justifies the genocide against Tutsi. Once all the fuss about Hotel Rwanda had settled down, he settled down into his political home.
In his autobiography, An Ordinary Man, he sneers at Hutu in Rwanda’s Government of National Unity, as “Hutu de service” “lackeys” Hutu for hire. The kind of language straight out of the infamous “Hutu ten Commandments,” which damn any Hutu who works with, or has any mercy for Tutsis as a traitor.
What mockery it is to claim that such a man “warned about the horrors of genocide…” Far from warning against genocide, he stoked its embers at every opportunity.
We are told that Rusesabagina “hid” refugees at the Mille Collines hotel, and years later, on his return to Rwanda, with film maker Terry George, would be “welcomed by cheering genocide survivors.” This will come as news to genocide survivors, but no doubt in the New York Times’s sequel, there will be cheering genocide survivors.
When it is not extolling the virtues of Rusesabagina, the newspaper reprises every claim ever made by every Rwandan detractor, to convince us of the evils of President Kagame. It is for his heroic fight against these evils, we are informed, that Rusesabagina was sought, not by the Rwanda justice system, but by “a vengeful strongman” who they claim “pursued him for 13 years.”
There is a symbiotic relationship between Rusesabagina, his family and supporters, and the Western journalists that have covered the story. Rusesabagina’s adopted daughter, Carine Kanimba, who has become the public face of his campaign, rages between claiming that none of the charges ever happened, “they are invented” she rails, to claiming that the attacks were a false flag operation. The New York Times, duly amplifies her claims.
The paper’s journalists were given unrivalled access, when the story of Rusesabagina’s arrest first broke. They may as well have saved the expense and stayed in New York, for the good they made of the privileged access.
They overlooked the story on the ground, all the collected evidence, and instead, seemingly sat at the feet of Rusesabagina’s family, and supporters, and reported as fact, anything that came out of their mouths.
On their visit to Rwanda, they interviewed Rusesabagina, in what was by any prison standards, a particularly comfortable room, where in their own words, the prisoner “still cuts the figure of an unruffled hotelier – pressed blazer, white shirt, polished loafers…”
And yet, when Carine Kanimba screams to the world, that her father was tortured, denied medical help, was in such a bad way, he may even be at death’s door, the paper duly repeats her claims, verbatim, effectively contradicting themselves, and their own photograph of a Rusesabagina, in the rudest of health.
The intention for Rusesabagina’s campaign team is to put him on a par with President Kagame, in fact at least a step above, so that his only crime is to be a “dissident” a “critic of Paul Kagame.”
The media is quick to adopt the strategy. This necessitates turning a blind eye to everything that Rusesabagina is, a man given to petty venality, whose hubris led him to imagine himself not as he is, but a far greater figure, dreamed up in the imagination of others.
The reality is that had he contented himself with shuttling around America, profiting from his Hollywood manufactured image of the “humanitarian hero”, he could have spouted his distorted views of Rwanda, to his heart’s content.
For Rwanda, he would have been just one more voice to the cacophony of Hutu Power inspired noise, “Rwanda is an open prison for Hutu” he was so fond of lisping, absurdly.
Unhappily for him, he did indeed begin to imagine himself the equal of Kagame, and why not take over Rwanda? After all, America loved him, and he was now the undisputed voice of Hutu Power, he could restore the ideology’s pre-eminence in Rwanda, “by any means necessary.” He was now quoting Malcolm X. He had perhaps seen the film.
Pare down the carefully crafted, inventive stories, and all we are left with are three Rusesabaginas: the man as he trully is, the myth created by a Hollywood film maker, and perpetuated in Western media, and what Rusesabagina then imagined he could be, based on the myths from the film, and his media persona.
As he begins his sentence, will he reflect that all the medals, and accolades, were little more than fools’ gold? Will he wonder if it had all been worth it?
And there are lessons aplenty for everyone else too. If they did not know it already, Rwanda must now know, that with the odd honourable exception, they can expect no journalism from Western news organisations, except if, and only if, these organisations can be publicly shamed into living up to the principles by which they purport to live.
And for all their inveighing against Rwanda, not letting the facts get in the way of their stories, will they reflect that it is in part their fabrications that led Rusesabagina to imagine himself a head of state, and to finance and lead an armed group to achieve those ambitions? Would they accept that Rusesabagina now begins a twenty-five year sentence, in part because they encouraged his hubris?