Less than a month before the 21st anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, which saw 800,000 people slaughtered during a hundred-day period that began on April 6, 1994, the Rwandan government is embroiled in a bitter altercation with the BBC over its documentary, Rwanda's Untold Story. The program suggests a different view of the events that brought President Paul Kagame to power than those widely accepted by the international community — so different, in fact, that it has been seized upon as evidence by five Rwandans currently fighting extradition from the United Kingdom on charges of crimes against humanity.
Already facing the possibility of criminal proceedings and accused of "genocide denial" by Kagame, the BBC now finds itself the target of a concerted campaign by an international coalition of experts who have accused it of an "outrageous" misrepresentation of the facts.
The controversy centers on the documentary's key allegation: that Kagame, the former rebel leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), had a hand in shooting down Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana's plane — the event which triggered the genocide.
US researchers with the documentary also claimed that a much larger percentage of Rwanda's 800,000 dead were in fact Hutus, killed by RPF forces —not the ethnic Tutsis documented as the principal victims of government-backed Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi militias.
The British broadcaster has stood by the documentary, which was originally aired in October 2014 and based its claim regarding Kagame's involvement on interviews with his former aides. An internal inquiry found provisionally that "the documentary does not breach the BBC's editorial standards."
Enraged by the findings, a 48-strong team of journalists, academics and senior personnel, spearheaded by Linda Melvern, a veteran investigative journalist and Rwanda-expert, and joined by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, the force commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), has now escalated its initial complaint to the senior echelons of the BBC with a 15-page report issued on Monday.
"The BBC lends credence to claims that the RPF started the genocide, did nothing to stop it once it started, and once having ignored it, insisted on victory," the team said. "Whole parts of the story are omitted from the program. The likelihood of a coup d'état by Hutu power extremists on April 6 1994 to pave the way for the genocide of the Tutsi is not mentioned. The chief suspect Theoneste Bagosora is missing from the story," it added, referring to the defense ministry chief of staff convicted of ordering the extermination of Rwanda's Tutsi minority.
The Rwandan government is currently mulling the possibility of bringing criminal and civil charges against the broadcaster, as well as terminating its filming contract in the country, on the recommendation of an official report, released on February 28. Following the broadcast of the documentary in October, Kagame told the parliament that the corporation had chosen to "tarnish Rwandans, dehumanize them."
The same month, the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency (RURA), appointed to investigate into the documentary, banned the BBC's radio broadcasts in the country's official language, Kinyarwanda. It claimed to have received complaints of "incitement, hatred, divisionism, genocide denial and revision" from the public.
In London, the documentary has found its way into court for a different reason altogether. It is currently being used as part of the defense plea in an ongoing attempt by the Kagame government to extradite five Rwandans now living in the UK, accused of organizing large-scale massacres of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.
Emmanuel Ntezirayo, Charles Munyaneza and Celestine Ugirashebuja once held positions as provincial mayors in Rwanda, and all have been accused of multiple counts of genocide, along with Dr Vincent Bajinya, accused of orchestrating mass killings using roadblocks in Kigali. Celestine Mutabaruka, a former Rwandan agriculturalist faces similar charges.
Defense lawyers for the group were unable to comment on the documentary's impact in the case, which is due to reconvene on March 23. But Vincent Bajinya's solicitor, Frank Brazzel, confirmed it had been presented as part of a selection of evidence regarding the genocide.
Melvern told VICE News that the BBC's presentation of the allegations in the documentary as fact was "dangerous."
"Here we have a BBC program in a very renowned documentary brand [the BBC's This World] claiming to have certainty, to have evidence, that the RPF downed that plane. In 21 years the only evidence there has ever been is unverified witness testimony of people who have an axe to grind," she said.
"You don't take unsubstantiated witness testimonies as fact. That's outrageous. And that's the danger — that it's easier to accuse Africans of these crimes, because, what is their recourse?" she added.
Addressing the contention that Hutus constituted a much larger percentage of the victims than previously believed, Melvern said the propagation of this viewpoint could have serious effects in Rwanda.
"This has strengthened Hutu power as an ideology. This ideology and the adherence to it hasn't gone away in the last 20 years. It is still very active. It's very active in North America, it's certainly very active in Europe. They have a dirty tricks campaign to try and prove the current government was responsible for the genocide — that in fact the victims themselves are responsible. What this program does is it gives voice to these people. It takes their arguments and gives them legitimacy. It's this that's dangerous."
"And the program didn't interview one Tutsi survivor. It was as though the survivors didn't exist," she added.
Reaching out to Rwanda's Tutsi survivors, VICE News contacted Tom Ndahiro, a Kigali resident who, after surviving the genocide, dedicated his life to its study.
"That documentary for me made me sick for a week or so… the whole thing was beyond my imagination. It was as if someone was stabbing me from left and right," he said.
"I live with the memories. I was not a trained historian. It was this crime which made me study what happened as it struck me like lighting. I never thought of seeing one or two dead bodies but I ended up seeing thousands. Not killed and buried, but killed and exposed. … And suddenly along comes someone who tells me what I saw is not real. Then I don't differentiate between a denier and a perpetrator. It's as if those who were killed were not enough."
But some Hutus have argued that deaths among their ethnic group have been ignored in the accepted version of the genocide. VICE News contacted a member of North America's Hutu diaspora, Theophile, an ex-Kigali resident now living in Maryland.
"They [Hutus] are not allowed to be mourned. The only thing they are allowed to do is be killed. Killed or sent to prison," he said.
"Hutus have been exterminated in horrendous numbers because they [the RPF] were throwing bombs in markets, they were calling them to meetings and gunning them down. RPF soldiers are the ones who were organizing the killings but in some regions in Rwanda some Tutsis revolted and they were killing people, too. It's not to say that it was just all Hutus. The country was in chaos."
"What the documentary said is things we've been saying all along. But things nobody wanted to listen to because they have their own interests. But to me, it's nothing new they've said that I haven't heard or I haven't said myself," continued Theophile.
"Mourning Hutu dead is accusing the RPF for what they did…What they show you on camera is the beauty of Kigali: the flowers, the buildings, the high rises, but beneath the surface there is still a lot of tension and fire burning up that you don't see."
VICE News also contacted the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) — a US-based political group made up of former Kagame-government exiles. Spokesperson Jean Paul Turayishimye told of their full support for the documentary.
"This is something that needed to happen sooner or later, because even if the information that was obtained from individuals interviewed was not one hundred percent accurate, we need that information out there. At least people understand the views of other people, not only what the government says."
The RNC also says Rwanda's freedom of speech issues run deeper than ethno-historic sensitivity.
"It's a dictatorship, it's a totalitarian regime…he [Kagame] wants to rule that place, really, like a jungle, where only the people who like him or who praise him can survive…. And he knows that freedom of expression is a big thing, and he knows that's the biggest threat to his government," Turayishimiye said.
"Why are Hutus not allowed mourn the people they lost? ... I think the government and whoever is preventing them from mourning their loved ones, it's a huge mistake — genocide or not…I think at least they should allow them to say 'we remember our people.'"
In recent years, Rwanda has also been involved in a heavy PR campaign to wipe away its blood-crusted image but critics fear it's a smokescreen to mute Kagame's opposition. In 2009, London PR company Racepoint began an extensive marketing campaign to discredit anti-Kagame voices, as well as Human Rights Watch reports.
Racepoint's contract was eventually cancelled, but the government continued to work with other PR agencies like BTP Advisers, adopting similar tactics aimed at Kagame's critics. And Rwanda's Untold Story possesses undoubted potential to re-ignite problems for Rwanda's image abroad, particularly in light of its burgeoning tourist industry.
During the early stages of the RURA report, Andrew Wallis, a British author, journalist and Rwanda-expert was questioned on the BBC's possible motivations for the documentary. He told VICE News about the anger it has sparked in Kigali.
"The feeling is that why has the BBC — 20 years after saying it was a genocide against the Tutsis — suddenly come out with this? Beyond the shock there's an anger and a feeling they're being misjudged. Rwanda isn't the country that's being portrayed."
"The BBC talks about free speech but it's not willing to entertain it, and under the freedom of information act they won't release any details…. But when you've got a global broadcaster one side and a small African country on the other, there's only one winner."
"There is a fear that because it's opened the floodgates, it's open season now."
Wallis continued: "I suspect they [the BBC] just saw it in terms of people switching on — viewers, controversial stuff, a conspiracy theory that hadn't been done before. So they thought, 'we'll turn it on its head. And great, more people will watch it.' I don't think the BBC had any idea how big this was going to be."
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Main image: Rwandan President Paul Kagame