final question

Controversial Rwanda interview earns BBC Africa journalist sack

By Mehdi Ba

Posted on February 11, 2020 09:12

 BBC headquarters in London © Fred Romero
BBC headquarters in London © Fred Romero

A one-side interview with Rwanda genocide negationist Charles Onana parts a BBC Afrique employee with his job

The stormy relations between the BBC and the Kigali authorities has reached a new level.

On 7 February, Congolese journalist Jacques Matand Diyambi received a letter from his editor notifying him of his “dismissal for serious misconduct” with immediate effect.

At issue was an interview he conducted in November with Charles Onana, author of the book Rwanda, the Truth about Operation Turquoise: When the Archives Speak (L’artilleur), published in October.

Onana, the author of several polemical works on the genocide of the Tutsis, is described as a “negationist”. He maintains the RPF rebellion, commanded by Paul Kagame, committed a double genocide against the Hutus and was behind the attack on President Juvénal Habyarimana in April 1994, which served as a trigger signal for the massacre of the Tutsis.

In his latest book, the Franco-Cameroonian writer, seemingly motivated by an obsessive animosity towards the current Rwandan president, whom he accuses of having favoured the genocide of the Tutsis in order to rise to power, attempts to absolve the French leaders of the time of having supported the Hutu regime during the genocide.

When the BBC and Rwanda pass the buck

Anne Look Thiam, Editor of BBC Africa in Dakar, criticised Diyambi of violating the channel’s internal rules of impartiality by not seeking views — other than those of Onana — especially those of the Rwandan authorities.

  • “We have established that your actions were clearly contrary to BBC editorial policy and that you took the initiative to conduct an interview on a controversial subject without following the necessary rules and without referring the matter to the necessary officials,” wrote Look Thiam.

According to Thiam, the Rwandan authorities’ reaction was the reason for firing the journalist.

“Our request for explanations was in response to the Rwandan government’s complaint about the interview you conducted with Charles Onana,” the editor wrote, adding that “the Rwandan government accuses the BBC of being unfair, biased and inaccurate and has indicated that it reserves the right to take sanctions against the BBC”.

Official sources reached in Kigali disagree. According to our source, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vincent Biruta, “has no knowledge of this affair”. Paul Kagame’s entourage took the same stand.

  • “You’re the one who told me, I didn’t even know that Onana had been interviewed by their team,” said an official source. “In any case, since when does the BBC take into account the observations made by the Rwandan government? They have never apologized for the documentary Rwanda’s Untold Story [broadcast in October 2014 on BBC2, the film is based on the “double genocide” thesis] and the BBC in Kinyarwanda is still banned from broadcasting in Rwanda because of this story.”

In London, Rwandan Ambassador Yamina Karitanyi also denies she wrote to the BBC management about the interview with Charles Onana, saying that her recent exchanges with Solomon Mugera, the central editor of BBC Africa, based in London, were about the biases of BBC reporting in general, not about this specific story.

  • “The BBC can take up even a verbal complaint on its own initiative, according to internal procedures,” said a good source in the embassy.

Journalistic imbroglio against a backdrop of negationist theses

The controversial documentary, Rwanda’s Untold Story, lies at the heart of the Rwandan regime’s long-standing grievances against the venerable British institution. After it aired, the authorities banned BBC News Gahuza, which broadcasts in Kinyarwanda, from operating in Rwanda on the FM band for an indefinite period.

Diyambi, for his part, said he had not received the “complaint” that Kigali had allegedly sent to his management. “Look Thiam had given me 72 hours to explain the conditions under which the interview was conducted. At that time, I was on leave, but I answered all her questions in writing as soon as I returned last Monday.”

According to him, the interview with Onana was carried out in accordance with editorial practice. The subject was presented on several occasions at editorial conferences, in the presence of representatives of the chief editor. Diyambi, however, concedes a certain complacency towards the vituperative writer, who maintains a widely contested vision of the Tutsi genocide.

  • “It may be intellectual naivety on my part, but I don’t like putting people in boxes. I may have played down the accusations of Holocaust denial against him, even though I make him react to criticisms of the way he rewrites official history,” he said.

In reality, however, the references Diyambi cites on the Great Lakes issue all have in common the fact they espouse the ideas of Charles Onana and the late Pierre Péan, his former mentor.

“Would this betray an anti-RPF bias against the history of the genocide? I can’t say,” he said evasively.

A BBC Africa reporter confirmed the interview was not conducted clandestinely.

  • “It’s something he had been talking about for a long time because he was reading the book. I know that the subject came up twice at editorial conferences, once with the editor in attendance.”

We have information that eight other journalists have been warned about this case.

Journalists’ union steps up to the plate

Another internal source questioned the real motivation for the dismissal for gross misconduct.

Diyambi is the secretary-general of the section of the Syndicat des professionnels de l’information et de la communication sociale du Sénégal (Synpics) within BBC Africa, and currently the channel is facing financial difficulties that are creating tension.

  • In a statement broadcast on 7 February, the BBC section of Synpics denounced the dismissal, saying “the decision to dismiss the section’s comrade general secretary without notice is a step backward for the editor-in-chief, who is not fulfilling her role as the person responsible for broadcasting any story”.

Anne Look Thiam, the editor-in-chief who wrote the letter of dismissal, did not want to give us any details about the origin of the steps that Rwanda had allegedly taken, referring us to the BBC press service.

  • An official Rwandan source said the matter was strictly internal. “Boris Johnson has the BBC in his sights, which is in financial difficulties,” said the official. “The BBC’s arguments about Onana are certainly relevant, but Rwanda has nothing to do with this case.”

The affair has sparked outcry in Congo where a petition has been launched to save Matand from the sack, amid talks of a BBC boycott.

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