A screenshot of the BBC Two documentary Rwanda's Untold Story, which led to the BBC's Kinyarwanda radio service being suspended in Rwanda.
A screenshot of the BBC Two documentary Rwanda's Untold Story, which led to the BBC's Kinyarwanda radio service being suspended in Rwanda.

BBC’s Rwanda documentary leads to illogical, illegal suspension

When the BBC released in early October its televised documentary “Rwanda’s Untold Story,” 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, the Kinyarwanda Great Lakes 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 objection 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, and journalists and academics who cited killings of an estimated 800,000 predominantly Rwandan Tutsis in just 100 days, were upset by the BBC’s television documentary, broadcast in English in the U.K. on October 1 and 3, and available on several video-sharing websites. The documentary “opens old wounds, spit(s) on the memories of over a million dead,” an editorial in the pro-government English daily, 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 called on 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 in London claiming the documentary’s findings were “absurd” and played into the narrative of genocide deniers. Those signing the letter, 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 recommend that the documentary makers be charged with genocide denial, and that the BBC’s license to broadcast in the country be revoked, according to news reports. The state-run telecommunications and broadcast regulator, the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority, in response to the parliamentary recommendations and a protest, accused the BBC of “re-writing Rwandan history” and banned BBC’s Kinyarwanda radio service two days later, news reports said. The FM frequency for the radio service was switched off and the Kinyarwanda service website was blocked. The short-wave service for the station is still available.

In a statement released the same day, a BBC spokeswoman argued that the documentary contributed to the understanding of the history of the country and denied accusations of bias. She said the BBC made repeated attempts for comment from the Rwandan government that were turned down, news reports said.

Whichever side of the issue, banning the BBC’s Kinyarwanda Great Lakes Service is not only illogical, but illegal too under the country’s media law. Last year, Rwanda passed a new law that moves responsibility for media 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.

President Kagame does not appear to support the ban either. In response to the documentary Kagame told parliament in October that the BBC has chosen to “tarnish Rwandans, dehumanise them.” He also responded to the documentary during a speech given this month to international think-tank Chatham House, based in London, where he said “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 [UK television channel] 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 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. After the documentary was broadcast, a columnist in the New 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, an 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 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 exiled former 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.”

Update: This blog post has been updated throughout to include further information about where the documentary was aired; what actions were taken by its critics; and how the ban on the BBC’s Kinyarwanda news service was implemented.