This oft-quoted statement by Toni Morrison, the American Nobel Laureate for Literature, is essential for anyone interested in understanding what’s going on with the media coverage of Paul Rusesabagina’s arrest: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Major international media houses—the likes of CNN, BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reuters and others—are distracting the public from the substance of the crimes that Paul Rusesabagina is accused of and diverting people’s attention to the procedure of his arrest. The distractions are so glaring that the uninformed or misinformed reader, the real target of the misleading reporting, would be forgiven for thinking that Rusesabagina was arrested for designating himself as a “hero” or for being a “critic.”
The first distraction was the story of “kidnap”, which has now been upgraded to “rendition.” What makes this a distraction is that no country has complained that its territorial integrity was violated by the “rendition” or “kidnap” of Rusesabagina. Even when it is clear that Rusesabagina came to Rwanda on his own volition, the media insists on the kidnap and rendition narrative. When they don’t do that, they raise alarm denouncing the possibility that Rusesabagina was “tricked” or lured into turning himself in.
“Suspects on the run don’t have to consent to their arrest,” a veteran Kigali lawyer told me as I was researching for this article. “They, in fact, get arrested because they didn’t know they would be arrested. Being lured into a trap is not a unique circumstance for arresting a suspect, especially those on the run like Rusesabagina. Rendition and kidnapping have meanings and what happened to him isn’t one of them,” he said, before adding, “if there are procedural issues that need to be challenged, that’s fine. There are provisions for challenging that under Rwanda’s laws. However, the most important part is that Rusesabagina was needed in Rwanda and he is here.” In other words, the rest is a distraction.
The second distraction was media coverage’s suggestion that it was somewhat improper for someone of Rusesabagina’s celebrity to get “paraded in handcuffs.” Surely, celebrities don’t come any bigger than Bill Cosby, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. His parading in handcuffs does not need reminding, and the internet is awash with pictures captured by the same media houses that have suddenly found it improper to parade and handcuff celebrities.
The third distraction is the claim that Rusesabagina’s family and lawyers have been denied access to him and that he faces the risk of torture. However, the family and lawyers concede to the fact that they are not physically present in Rwanda. Unless the allegation is intended to act as a distraction, what kind of access do they expect if they are not physically present in Rwanda where their family member and client is?
Similarly, how do they know that Rusesabagina is undergoing torture when they don’t have access to him? On the contrary, I have it on good authority that Rusesabagina has been talking to his family on the phone. Rusesabagina has also stated that he has been “treated with kindness” and was given the right to choose his legal defence: “I have been offered an option to choose my defense team. Investigations are still ongoing, I do not want to discuss details of a matter before the court. I do not want to discuss my charges because this is an issue that is before court and investigations,” he said in the interview.
A source also intimated to me that a representative of the Belgian embassy visited Rusesabagina at his jail cell at Remera Police Station. So, what’s the media distraction all about?
Contempt for “native institutions”
I asked a former prosecutor and someone who handled cases that involved similar international media coverage, what he thinks about the international media’s failure or refusal to discuss the substance of Rusesabagina’s arrest, including terrorism crimes (particularly the concern for the victims of the attacks by FLN –Force for National Liberation — the armed wing of Rusesabagina’s political party MRCD (Movement for Change and Democracy in Rwanda) and his own recordings announcing the launch of the armed struggle in the lead-up to the attacks.
“It is not the first time they are doing this [distraction],” the prosecutor said. “In 2010, a foreigner who had been engaging in genocide denial was arrested and charged under Rwandan law. Even before his charges were read out, there was a petition that was making rounds across his home country calling for his release. I happened to visit that country. I met some of those petitioners in a public forum. I asked them whether they knew what the charges were. They didn’t because their petition was before the prosecution had initiated charges. So, I asked them ‘what are you petitioning against?’ None of them could reasonably answer my question.”
The petition, as is the media onslaught on the procedure of Rusesabagina’s arrest, was a distraction. It is a contemptuous reaction to Rwanda’s institutions. As noted above, the media is awash with a multitude of allegations against the government, ranging from procedural to substantive breaches of rights (torture, denial of access, etc) from a team of lawyers (and spokesperson) that has not bothered to meet Rusesabagina for client-to-lawyer interactions.
This contempt also explains the coverage by The Washington Post that Rusesabagina had been detained by the “state-run Rwanda Investigation Bureau” as if to suggest that he is being held captive by a rogue entity that is about to pass him over to a “native court” for trial.
At the centre of the willful manipulation of the media is Ms. Kitty Kurth, the Spokesperson of the Rusesabagina Foundation, the orchestrator of the grand distraction. One would be tempted to think that this is a briefcase foundation. For one thing, the Foundation acts as if it has an open-ended mandate in taking up the criminal responsibilities of its founder, Rusesabagina, without owning up to prior knowledge of his criminal activities, including the recorded statements and actions advancing armed groups.
Otherwise, the Foundation can’t have its cake and eat it, too. Indeed, if the officials of the Foundation are acting on their own or in their new capacities vis-à-vis the circumstances that their founder finds himself in, then they also need to disclose their new status in order for them to be taken seriously by Rwanda’s Justice system and other international entities they are engaging. If the foundation is a vehicle for criminal behaviour, as Ms Kurth’s role seems to suggest, then this is of interest to Rwandans in their quest to bring Rusesabagina to justice.
Ms. Kurth can play these double roles only because the media, as a functional tool in this distraction, allows her to get away with it. Indeed, as Morrison would put it, it is racism that informs the contemptuous view of Rwanda’s institutions.