An open letter to The New York Times
By Dr. Brian Endless
I am writing today concerning the March 2, 2021 New York Times Sunday Magazine article by Joshua Hammer entitled “He Was the Hero of Hotel Rwanda. Now He’s Accused of Terrorism.” Please note that this is a follow-up to my pre-publication letter to Mr. Robinson, in which I mentioned that the issues discussed here were brought up with Joshua during the interview process by myself and others.
I will state in advance that I am a long-time friend and colleague of Paul Rusesabagina’s, and I know him well. I have been involved in efforts to free him from imprisonment in Rwanda and work closely with his family. I am also the Director of African Studies at Loyola University Chicago and an expert on Rwanda. I have provided expert witness testimony in Federal cases in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands, as well as numerous asylum cases in the US and Canada.
Sadly but as expected, the final article by Joshua Hammer is a stereotypical example of “hack journalism” at it’s worst. Joshua interviewed me and many other people affiliated with Paul Rusesabagina, plus a number of journalists and academic experts. He clearly ignored all of our input, and instead told the story that has been put out since shortly after the terrible 1994 genocide by the propaganda machine of Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
I do not use “hack journalism” here lightly, but I believe the dictionary definition applies. According to Quora and many other sources: the word “hack” refers to someone who is disreputable, unreliable, or mediocre; it can also refer to a partisan who only cares about their group or their political party. Joshua’s investigation was poor and almost entirely one sided. It became clear on continued contacts with him that he is incredibly biased toward the propaganda of President Paul Kagame’s regime in Rwanda, which almost all outside sources consider to be fraudulent and solely intended to support his regime domestically and abroad. Rwandan leaders regularly rewrite history and Joshua has completely bought into Kagame’s rewrite. Typically, authors who support Kagame this strongly are being paid by the regime, but I have no evidence of that in this case.
In a clear display of Joshua’s bias, I and others were misquoted in some cases, and in others my/our quotes were taken completely out of context. We each and collectively felt that Josh had pre-written his story from Kagame’s perspective, and his only goal in interviewing us was to fit our comments into his narrative, whether or not they supported it. Please note that my personal and professional reputation has already been questioned because of this article. One of the quotes attributed to me is offensive from the perspective of Rwanda experts and something that I would never say. I will detail that at the end of this letter.
I and others provided Josh with dozens of documents during his research process, as well as talking with him on the phone and giving him information multiple times. The feeling that each of us have is that if the information didn’t fit in with his mindset, he was ignoring it and not paying attention to the answers that we gave. Paul’s family felt that he was VERY invasive and simply not listening at all during interviews with them.
In particular, he kept pushing multiple people to get him direct contact with Paul in jail in Kigali. The fact is Paul’s family and legal team do not even have good access to Paul. His family talks with him once a week for 5 minutes. His Rwandan lawyer was barred from representing him for 3 months, still cannot contact him on the telephone, and has now only been allowed in to see him a few times in preparation for a trial that has already started, with over 5,000 documents in evidence. Josh would not accept the fact that we have no access to Paul. Five days before his deadline he sent the family a two page list of questions, stating that Paul must (his word) answer them by this Friday because that is the story deadline. He claims to understand Rwanda, but his expectations of what happens when a dictator puts a perceived political opponent in prison are not in keeping with reality at all.
Very problematically, the questions that he asked us came straight from President Kagame’s propaganda stockpile. We debunked many of these 10 years ago and most have been rejected by the international community, including multiple human rights organizations and scholarly publications.
For example, he kept pressing on the notion that Paul had any affiliation with the with the FDLR (former Rwandan Hutu military/militas now in exile in the Congo). This is not true, but is based on allegations against Paul from the period around 2010. The allegations were discredited then and have only come back up now as the Rwandan government is using the same false allegations in their press coverage.
Thus in the article, I was disappointed but not surprised to see that not only Paul, but ANYONE in opposition to Kagame in Rwanda or in the diaspora is linked to a “Hutu Power” ideology, and by default to the FDLR. This is an absolutely ridiculous notion. While there is a thriving opposition in the diaspora, most of them were harmed by the 1994 genocide and the Hutu Power ideology that led directly to that genocide. Paul’s life and his family were threatened by the Hutu Power leaders and militias.
While the FDLR, led by Hutu Power proponents, was still potent for a few years after the genocide in exile in the Congo/Zaire, they are ineffectual now, and many other opposition groups have arisen that have no connection to the FDLR. At this time, most mentions of the FDLR are limited to information and propaganda put out by the Rwandan government, who still hold them up as convenient straw man opponents. It has been common since at least 2010 for ANY enemy of Kagame’s to be “linked” to the FDLR by Rwandan government and press statement, but no evidence is ever provided. These are simply more attempts to demonize opponents and link them to “FDLR terrorism.” I, along with every Rwandan I know and everyone I am aware of who works on Rwanda, believe that the current FDLR is a last remnant of a horrific Hutu-first ideology. That being said, Kagame has iron-clad control over his country, and there is no legitimate reason to believe that any such activities by the FDLR exist.
Josh also talks about the ideas of “genocide ideology,” “negationism” and the “double genocide theory” in his article. What he fails to mention is that these are ideas that have no relevance in reality outside of the Kagame regime. These terms were made up and inserted into the 2003 Rwandan constitution as ways to control the populace, and to accuse anyone opposed to Kagame’s position of being a “genocide ideologist” or something similar. For example, if you state that Hutus died alongside Tutsis during the genocide, a statement that is completely factual, you are called an ideologist. If you state that Kagame’s RPF committed war crimes between 1990 and 1994, as confirmed by enormous amounts of evidence, you are a “double genocide theorist.” If you talk about Hutus who were heroes during the genocide, you may also be an ideologist. “Genocide ideology” has become one of the main tools the government uses to completely limit free speech in Rwanda, as any opponents are linked to some denial of the genocide and harassed, silenced, jailed or killed.
This brings me to the potentially libelous misquote of me that is COMPLETELY out of context in the article. The quote is that Endless “argues that Kagame “invented” the “Tutsi genocide.””
In the community of Rwanda experts, and to some extent to the broader world, this is clearly intended to make it sound like I am stating that Kagame made up the genocide. This would make me a “genocide denier” in both the Rwandan and in the common sense of the word. I do not hold that perspective, never had, and have never said those words. The fact that they are attributed to me in the article is offensive on its face.
In fact, this topic came up in a discussion about Kagame’s propaganda machine since the genocide, when I mentioned that Kagame and his people invented the phrase “genocide against the Tutsi” as a way to further spin the pro-Tutsi, anti-Hutu narrative inside and outside of the country. This was forced upon the Rwandan population and pushed out to the world as the new, “official” way to discuss the genocide. Tutsis were to be seen as the only victims, and all Hutus should be seen as guilty of supporting the genocide. While the concept is completely false, it seems innocuous to people who do not understand what happened inside of Rwanda in 1994 and the years leading up to the genocide, or what has happened since. I have made the statement in bold above many times, believe that it is factual, and discussed it with him during the interview.
During that part of the discussion, I had just finished discussing the terrible atrocities committed by the Hutu military and Interhamwe during the genocide targeting Tutsis but also killing many Hutus, and that the RPF killed many additional people, mostly Hutus, in the years after the genocide in both Rwanda and Zaire/Congo. My writing and speeches, as well as my work with Paul Rusesabagina and his foundation, has always been clear about the horrific genocide that occurred in 1994. Problematically, this often puts me at odds with Paul Kagame’s new and revised interpretation of that genocide for his own political benefit.
I first realized that this misquoting might occur when contacted by the NYT fact checker for the article. The quote read to me by the fact checker stated that I said “Kagame invented the genocide.” I flatly denied that and explained the full context to the fact checker (as above). Unfortunately, instead of fully clarifying or taking it out, the newer version was put in. This newer version is still highly offensive, completely out of context, and in no way reflects my words or views.
Since this article appeared, a number of colleagues have contacted me to express their concern about the quote, and it has required significant time on my side to correct my damaged reputation. One Rwanda expert felt the need to cancel their appearance on a panel with me based on the appearance of the quote in this article.
I have also spoken with most of the other people quoted for this story who are not currently inside of Rwanda, and each of them has a similar account of misquoting and purposeful misinterpretation.
Apparently, the only people in the story quoted accurately are those who are inside of Rwanda and work for the Kagame government. We know this because they have been involved in Kagame’s propaganda machine and telling the same fabrications over the years. It is impossible for anyone in Rwanda to speak freely to a reporter UNLESS they agree with and put out Kagame’s perspective on the story in question.
In terms of the story told AND not told in this article: President Kagame is widely known and accepted in the international community as a personal dictator, with effectively sole rule over a country of over 12 million people. He does not really rule for his ethnic group, the Tutsi who make up about 14% of the population, but rather rules for his own small group of supporters. He also rules by generating hatred of the Hutu ethnicity, who he and his supporters, along with the completely non-independent press in Rwanda, demonize on a regular basis.
Most important for this case, since the late 1990s the Kagame regime is known as a regime that tolerates no dissent, whether inside or outside of the country. Numerous reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International Reporters Without Borders, the US State Department and both governments and NGOs around the world tell the full tale of the massive human rights violations brought about by the Kagame machine. Mounds of evidence show that the rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front group that he led in the 1990–94 civil war committed crimes against humanity and war crimes, primarily against Hutu citizens. This included during the 1994 genocide. Then after that genocide, the Kagame regimes crimes continued and in 1998 spread to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire.) Over seven million have died in a conflict driven by rare minerals in the eastern portion of that country since, and the United Nations Mapping Report notes that it is both driven by the Rwandan government, that many war crimes were committed by that government, and that there is enough evidence to investigate Rwandan leaders for a genocide in the Congo.
Other human rights are also routinely violated in Rwanda, including almost all civil and political rights. There is no right to free speech, freedom of assembly or freedom of the press. Critics are regularly harassed, imprisoned, exiled and killed when they express political sentiments that are opposed to the government, or even support political parties beyond the RPF. Rwanda is a completely closed society in terms of speech and politics, with a “party line” dictated by Kagame that others cross at their own peril.
Paul Rusesabagina’s story fits directly into this narrative. As a leading critic of the human rights violations and complete lack of democracy in his native Rwanda, Paul has been high up on the list of dissidents that Kagame wants to silence since shortly after the release of the movie Hotel Rwanda in 2004.
In closing, I have enormous respect for both the New York Times as THE paper of record, and for the vast majority of your reporters. That is not the case for this article or its author. I expect enormously better than this in terms of quality, unbiased reporting. While I doubt there were any Rwanda experts available to really fact check this story, you have published an article that effectively regurgitates the propaganda of a dictator who oppresses the human rights of his people, and who has kidnapped and imprisoned a humanitarian and political opponent based on made up evidence. Your newspaper has a history of excellent reporting on Rwanda before and since Paul Rusesabagina’s kidnapping, including those by Abdi Latif Dahir and Declan Walsh, among others — this is an example from the other end of the spectrum.
Beyond the personal damage mentioned above, I am much more concerned that this story may harm Paul Rusesabagina’s chances of surviving his imprisonment in Rwanda and eventually being freed. As reported multiple times in your newspaper and on the Daily podcast, Paul was kidnapped by the Rwandan government, is under illegal and arbitrary detention, and has no chance of getting a fair trial in Rwanda, as the outcome of his show trial is pre-ordained. His best chance of release relies on public opinion in the United States and Europe, and I join his family in fearing that a factually problematic article in your magazine, supporting the dictator who kidnapped and imprisoned him, may cause him direct harm.
Other than a denunciation of the Joshua Hammer article, I am not sure what other remedy exists to correct this example of hack journalism. Those are words I have never associated with the New York Times before, and hope to never feel the need to use again.