media: a tough battle that must be fought
If at times we are obliged to do without the international
media, the same cannot be said when it comes to the local
media in the Great Lakes. This is particularly important considering
that some local media have at times been used to spread propaganda,
misinformation and hate messages that have preceded attacks
on humanitarian workers or local authority officials —
not to mention the 1994 genocide.
Take Burundi, where on 12 December 1995 the ICRC was accused
by name in the local media of having handed Tutsi soldiers
over to Hutu rebel forces. The programme was broadcast in
full in English and again 15 minutes later in French. The
television took over at 8.30 p.m. An hour later, grenades
were hurled at the expatriate humanitarian community in Gitega
in central Burundi. The ICRC suspended its activities throughout
the country. Tens of thousands of people were left without
In an attempt to redress the wrong, an intensive campaign
was launched to improve communication with the local media,
involving the combined efforts of the head of delegation,
the dissemination delegate and the information delegate for
the Great Lakes region. The effort appeared to pay off. A
press release completed at 11 a.m. was taken up in two languages
by the radio an hour later, on the basis of a phone call.
Whole pages sympathetic to the ICRC were published in the
main Burundian daily, setting forth the ICRC’s working
principles, the nature of its operations in Burundi and its
Sadly, it was not enough to prevent the murder of three ICRC
delegates on 4 June 1996. Although I don’t think that
the assassination of our delegates was directly linked to
the initial bad publicity, as information delegate dealing
with the local press at the time of the murders, I am still
asking myself: to what extent could an even bigger effort
by us to explain our mandate and actions via the local media
have prevented it?
But then again, the margin of manoeuvre for an information
delegate in such a context is extremely limited. Rwanda, Burundi,
Masisi in the Kivu region have all been the scenes of civil
strife in recent years, with an ethnic minority in opposition
to the ethnic majority, each one in their turn fighting for
In such a context, the ICRC’s priorities — to
assist and protect the victims of the conflict — are
fundamental for the organization but are considered impertinent
in the pervading logic. These same priorities may at certain
times and in certain places be in direct opposition to the
local dynamic. We can try to make it understood through the
local media that we are neutral, independent and impartial.
What weight does that carry before the logic of survival?
There is no such thing as neutrality when you are battling
for the survival of your own kind.
This both justifies the essential work we do with the local
media and stresses its limits. Yet that is where I believe
the priority lies.