Fergal Keane: Yes, we did cover horror of Rwanda

Fergal Keane defends the media from the charge of inadequately covering a genocide

Linda Melvern has been one of the foremost investigators to emerge in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and I respect her work enormously. But her critique of the film, Shooting Dogs, on these pages last week, was misleading about BBC coverage. The impression she conveyed was of journalistic abandonment. This is unfair to several brave BBC correspondents.

From the very beginning, the BBC carried reports of the slaughter from Lindsey Hilsum, in Rwanda on attachment with Unicef when the killing started. The BBC's Mark Doyle arrived in Rwanda on 8 April, just after the major killings began. He was to remain for most of the 100 days of the genocide, reporting for all the BBC outlets, including Todayand television news.

Nairobi-based correspondent Roger Hearing and cameraman Bhasker Solanki entered Rwanda by road, a perilous journey, and arrived in Kigali on 12 April, five days after the killing began.

Linda Melvern also writes: 'Nor did BBC news broadcasts tell the world a genocide was underway.' But on 14 April, Mark Doyle reported: 'Before the rebels came to Kigali a few days ago, what appears to have been a deliberate plan by Hutu militias to massacre Tutsis or rebel supporters was instigated; thousands were executed by bullet or by knife.' Nothing ambiguous there. Melvern is right: the BBC did not use the word 'genocide' at that point, but then neither did Lt General Roméo Dallaire.

I don't argue with her general comments on the tone of much media coverage in the early days. I also share her view that the newsdesks of the major broadsheets and the television organisations, including the BBC, should have given the story a higher priority. But I would ask her to accept that Doyle and Hilsum were among a brave group of correspondents who told Rwanda as it was.

One thing Melvern avoids mentioning, possibly, in fairness, because she was not there, was the degree of danger involved. I arrived in late May 1994. It was still a traumatising place. A week before, the BBC's Geoff Spink and Andy Kershaw were caught in an attack and hunted through the bush by members of the Interahamwe. They were lucky to escape. It simply is not possible to convey the atmosphere of terror for those of us who tried to cover the genocide. For some of us, it has left an enduring mark, a sense that we failed, not so much as journalists, but as human beings, because we saw things we were powerless to stop.

Linda Melvern did not have to confront those realities. I am glad for her.

·Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent


Fergal Keane

The GuardianTramp

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