Blaming the Messenger: A Response to 'One Man's Rwanda' by Tristan McConnell

Journalist Tristan McConnell is senior Africa correspondent for Global Post and East Africa correspondent for The Times of London. He recently took it upon himself to critique the work of American reporter Philip Gourevitch in "One Man's Rwanda," an article published in the Columbia Journalism Review. What has emerged from these efforts, however, is a tired piece, lacking in scope, constructed more from the confines of an armchair than based on observations from the field. The article is one that rehashes an old story over governance concerns in the troubled present-day Rwandan state, but more insidiously, McConnell's interpretations seek to implicate a reporter's allegiances and undermine his efforts. It is important to note Gourevitch was one of the first to reconstruct the events of the Rwandan genocide in its aftermath, and has sought to document the recovering nation state ever since. Gourevitch is currently researching a book on modern-day Rwanda.

At the outset, McConnell commends Gourevitch. The lede begins, thus:

There had been ethnic massacres in Rwanda before, but nothing on the scale of the genocide that began in April 1994. The killing had been over for nearly a year when a young American reporter, Philip Gourevitch, set foot in Rwanda for the first time the following May. The bodies of the dead were reverting to bone but memories were still raw.

Subsequently, he acknowledges the reporter's commitment in a follow-up paragraph:

Over three years, Gourevitch spent months at a time in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, committing himself more wholly to the story of the genocide's aftermath than perhaps any other foreign journalist.

But then, as the piece continues, McConnell begins to suggest, at worst, in lewd otherwise no uncertain terms, that Philip Gourevitch himself is the man behind the Rwandan president Paul Kagame's political ascent on the international stage and that Gourevitch's "writing was extremely influential in helping Kagame establish a degree of international traction." As part of this assertion, he quotes a professor, David Anderson, who teaches African politics at Oxford. McConnell utilizes this observation to make a host of other claims, some coincidental, some less so -- to entirely reconstitute the aims and interests at play in Gourevitch's tireless pursuit of the Rwandan story -- a story that by most counts is far from straightforward, and as part of which, unfortunately perhaps, Paul Kagame still figures as a crucial and vital player.

Take this paragraph, for instance, in which McConnell remarks on Gourevitch's follow-up reports on killings by the RPF of Hutu populations in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997:

But where some saw worrying signs, Gourevitch did not; instead, he saw in the camps a justification for the attacks that followed. His witnessing of the camps also molded his long-standing antagonism toward the humanitarian organizations that sheltered the Hutus and enabled the command structures of the genocide to persist.

In a 1997 New Yorker article, Gourevitch discussed the attacks on Hutus in Congo. "Many of the killings appeared gratuitous, and several death-squad-style massacres had been reported," he wrote. But later in the piece he allows Kagame ample opportunity to dismiss the reports: Kagame "was not denying that a lot of Rwandan Hutus were being killed in the Congo. But, he said, 'these are not genuine refugees. They're simply fugitives, people running away from justice after killing people in Rwanda--after killing!' They were still killing, he said."

It is relevant to recognize that McConnell has seized on that one aspect of humanity that he himself appears to lack -- that journalists, by definition, must report what they see and hear. There are many more instances when McConnell takes issue with Gourevitch's judgments -- and yet, it is precisely this aspect that characterizes reporters as international actors trading expressly in facts, not persuasions. Gourevitch provides also another side of the argument, without extolling it -- that this perspective comes directly from Paul Kagame, the man who dealt the orders -- was that wrong? Should Gourevitch not have sought the general's opinion? Are we not to learn the justifications for the decisions made when the allegations and evidence remain as egregious as they are? It would compromise objectivity entirely if one were to miss out on what Kagame and his party believe were the reasons for their actions.

Furthermore, what is striking about McConnell's assertions (the above example is one among many) is how little he thinks of Gourevitch when it comes to being a keen, careful observer of the Rwandan state. So, is McConnell one of them?

I daresay he is not. It is where his arguments falter. There may be a sincere inclination behind McConnell's intentions, but taking hits at a man who has devoted his life to the plight of Rwandan people is cheap by any measure.

Although he says that he recognizes the "compassion," "clarity," and "freshness" of Gourevitch's first book on Rwanda, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, McConnell affords the American reporter little of it himself. McConnell says he concealed his focus of the piece to secure Gourevitch's interview last September. Though on its own this is not unspeakable, what McConnell lacks overall is sufficient curiosity and compassion for his subject, a reporter he attempted to profile -- and this is a trait Gourevitch, incidentally, affords him in granting him a frank interview. In fact, the author of "One Man's Rwanda" exhibits few of these attributes more generally, throughout the article, treating Gourevitch's extensive, in-depth reporting as almost incidental, as if the accumulation of years of experience in a place is of little long-term value. Perhaps it is trend on the part of foreign reporters at the moment, or otherwise a sign of these pecuniary times that when a journalist chooses to commit his time to document the atrocities of history -- building an expertise in a region that holds limited interest for most -- that the personal reputation or character of that individual is tested when things are murky, when the answers seem confusing, complex or multifaceted. In terms of his reporting, what Gourevitch has persevered to communicate, time and again, is that Rwanda's about-turn toward stability is politically counterintuitive. Gourevitch himself, perhaps, has not yet expressed the facts in terms most can fully grasp -- in characterizing Kagame, however, he is clear and confident that "the verdict is still out."

Kagame is that man who, in masking his own paranoid fears behind the arrests, detentions and secret disappearances of Rwandan reporters and opposition figures, wields his influence because Rwandans allow it -- he is a brutal man Rwandans admire, with more than a few tricks up his sleeve. Indeed, it may seem paradoxical but his Rwandan counterparts routinely praise this aspect of Kagame's nature, fear its consequences and secretly revere him for it.

Counterintuitively perhaps, but most Rwandans don't want to challenge Paul Kagame -- they want to be Paul Kagame. That Kagame has made ugly bargains when it comes to keeping the reins close on power only makes Rwandans more secure with him. More than 90 percent of them voted for him in the last election -- and Hutus were no different from Tutsis in this regard when it became time for the ballot box. (They could have abstained from voting entirely if they did not like the choices presented to them, but they did not. Instead, the vast majority cast a vote in favor.)

But McConnell has no way of knowing this. Reason being that despite spending a good deal of effort on Rwandan politics, he likely wrote the piece from the comforts of a home office in Nairobi. Focusing on Gourevitch, rather than the Rwandan state (a place for which he displays a stale, rather insipid regard), McConnell instead points an accusatory finger at a reporter, one who camped out amidst skulls and corpses in 1995 to complete a passionate and scrupulous book.

McConnell has done journalism no favors and exposed no telling maneuvers. There is nothing grand or revelatory in his assertions. Instead, some might argue that by undermining Gourevitch so profusely, he does Rwandan history a grave disservice. Gourevitch is a rare breed of citizen, one of the remarkable few, tasked with the responsibility of bringing to international attention the horrifying, underreported truths of an utterly heinous Rwandan genocide -- someone who, to this day, continues to travel to the country and keeps up his fascination and engagement with the place.

That is more than most journalists do. And perhaps it is the state of foreign reporting that makes it acceptable to impugn such a person, as it is a story cheap and easy to publish.

Then again, perhaps there is nobody but McConnell to blame and the task is simply McConnell's to begin with. However much McConnell's handling of the history and circumstance surrounding Paul Kagame's ascent triggers more dialogue, rather than dealing directly McConnell preferred instead an assault on Gourevitch's character. Gourevitch, incidentally, is quoted throughout the McConnell article for his insight on the modern Rwandan state and has responded directly already.

McConnell has drudged up few novel stories from Rwanda of his own, discovering few, if any, truly riveting critiques of the current president, the state or its people that have not previously been reported.

Indeed, if he had news to share, he would probably not single out a journalist with a level of access he envies and possibly admires. If McConnell himself had such access, perhaps he would instead have told us something we don't already know of the inner workings of the enigmatic Rwandan president.

Instead, in roundabout fashion, McConnell constructs an oblique, albeit grammatically pristine comment on topics and incidents human rights organizations and other news groups brought to the fore no later than eight months ago, in the run-up to the Rwandan election.

To attain a position of such high order in the journalism world, Mr. McConnell must have written more than a few good words of his own. This article presumably is not the best of them. The writer is a filmmaker and journalist who has worked in Rwanda.