Genocide in the Media: Reporting Variations
(Remarks prepared for an International Academic Forum conference on arts, media and culture, Kyoto, Japan, October, 2023)
By David Matas
Click HERE to view the virtual presentation on the International Academic Forum (IAFOR) Vimeo channel.
Mass killings of innocents based on their identity characteristics are sometimes well reported in the media, sometimes not so much. The variations in reporting impact on efforts to prevent the continuation of the mass killings and to institutionalize remedies for them. This presentation attempts to explain the differences in reporting on genocides by considering genocides which have been relatively well reported – of Bosniak Muslims in Srebrenica and Tutsis in Rwanda, and a genocide which is poorly reported – the mass killing in China of practitioners of the spiritually based set of exercises Falun Gong for their organs.
The presentation addresses fourteen factors relevant to reporting. The factors addressed are these:
the speed at which the mass killings occur,
attempts by the perpetrators to cover up,
the propaganda of the perpetrators,
the nature of the available evidence,
the manner in which the genocide is inflicted,
the awareness that the global community has of the victim community,
the interests that outsiders may have in not confronting the perpetrators,
the ability of the victim community to mobilize,
the sympathy that outsiders may have for the ideology of the perpetrators,
the determination where the onus lies,
the tendency to engage in false symmetry between the perpetrators and the victims, and
different shades of commitment or indifference by outsiders.
I will go through these fourteen factors in turn.
The first factor I suggested that impacts on reporting of genocide is the speed at which the mass killings occur.
There is a difference between cold genocides and hot genocides. A cold genocide is a slow process of annihilation, an unfolding phenomenon of the destruction of the group through gradual measures. Hot genocides are destructive acts of high intensity which annihilate the victim group in a short time span, the immediate unleashing of violent death.
The Rwandan genocide occurred between 7 April and 15 July 1994 a period of around one hundred days. In that period, more than 800,000 Tutsis were killed.
The Srebrenica genocide occurred between 11 July 1995 and 31 July 1995, a period of 21 days. In that period, there were 8,372 Bosniak men and boys killed; the women and girls were systematically sexually abused and deported.
The Chinese Communist Party announced publicly in July 1999 their decision to repress the practice of Falun Gong. The mass killing of Falun Gong for their organs began in the early 2000s. These mass killings continue to this day, more than two decades later.
News stories are expected to provide new information. A mass killing in a short period of time is news. A mass killing that occurs over decades may be news at one point, but not at every point throughout the decades.
The second factor relevant to reporting of mass killings is the success of attempts by the perpetrators to cover up.
There were attempts to deny the genocide in Rwanda, by those accused of the genocide and by some of their defence counsel. However, those denials did not get very far, in light of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Denials of a genocide in Srebrenica by leading Serbian figures have been commonplace. Yet, in light of a determination by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to the contrary, these denials have not had much traction.
Denial and cover up of genocide of Falun Gong is more than just Chinese Government assertions that it did not happen. The Government produces falsified statistics. They systematically remove any information or data from Government websites which implicate them in the mass killings. They end reporting of data streams which provide evidence of the abuse. Inculpatory data is archived abroad but is not accessible in China. The Government engages in blockage of internet searches related to Falun Gong.
The coverup is easier to perpetrate in China than in Rwanda or Srebrenica because the genocidal killers did not remain in control of Rwanda or Srebrenica. The victimization in those places became widely, publicly visible.
In China, in contrast, the Communist Party remains in control of the locations of the killings. Organ harvesting with prisoner of conscience victims occurs in a closed environment, in prisons and hospitals. There are no bodies to autopsy, since bodies are cremated. There is no access to relevant Chinese prison and hospital records. One independent researcher after another has established that the evidence of the mass killings has occurred beyond any reasonable doubt. Yet, going through that evidence is a time consuming exercise and not as easily communicated as visible victimization.
For the media, which are inevitably producing summaries, snapshots, and encapsulations, the time and effort needed to pierce through the veil of Chinese Government/ Communist Party cover up is time and effort the media mostly does not have. Even if and when that time and effort is expended, the length and detail of the research which establishes the result makes the result difficult to communicate.
The third factor relevant to the reporting of mass killings is the propaganda of the perpetrators.
Perpetrators of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda claimed that the killings were justified as self-defence, part of a civil war, that there was an invading Tutsi rebel army, and that this army intended to wipe out the Hutu majority. There was indeed an armed conflict between the Hutu Rwandan Armed Forces and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the expelled Tutsi Rwandan minority who were trying to fight their way back home, a conflict in which the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) prevailed. However, the claim that the Tutsi victims of the genocide in Rwanda were killed in this conflict or that the invading RPF intended genocide of the Hutus was so obviously contradicted by plainly visible facts that this propaganda developed few adherents.
Similarly, for Srebrenica, there are elements that claim the massacre never happened, that the evidence about it was faked. Other claims are that, though there were killings, the killings did not amount to a genocide, that the claim of genocide was made to paint a bad picture of the Serbian people. Here too, the evidence is so obvious and compelling, that this propaganda effort has not gone very far.
With the mass killing of Falun Gong for their organs, the propaganda from the Chinese Government/ Communist Party is generically similar, claiming the atrocities never happened, and blaming the victims. Chinese Government/ Communist Party propaganda asserts that the conclusion of the mass killings is based only on rumours emanating from the Falun Gong community and that Falun Gong is an evil cult. The Chinese Government says that the researchers who have produced the many reports documenting this genocide are anti-Chinese.
For the media, on a generic level, there is nothing particularly distinctive about the Chinese Government/ Communist Party propaganda denying the genocide. The denials are typical for genocide. However, because of other factors set out here, the extent of the cover up, the fact that the perpetrator regime is still in place, and so on, the media have greater difficulty dismissing this propaganda as so much nonsense from the get-go.
The fourth factor generating a difference in reporting is the availability of eyewitness testimony. Eyewitness evidence, both for journalists and their audiences, is easily understood. For Rwanda and Srebrenica, they were available. For the mass killing of Falun Gong for their organs, for the most part, they were not. There are several whistle blowers who witnessed elements of the atrocities. Yet, because of the risks to themselves and their families, the evidence they give is mostly anonymized. As well, because the slaughter of Falun Gong occurs in bits in pieces over time throughout China, no one person is an eyewitness to large components of the atrocity, let alone all of it.
The fifth factor generating a difference in reporting is the nature of the other available evidence, besides eyewitness testimony. Particularly convincing evidence for mass killings, both for determining the wrong and reporting on it, is corpses.
For both Rwanda and Srebrenica, there were plenty of those. For the mass killing of Falun Gong, there are none. The practitioners are being killed through organ extraction and their bodies cremated.
A telling form of evidence is demographics. It was obvious in Srebrenica, after the killings and deportations, that the Bosniak Muslims were no longer there. Similarly, in Rwanda, it was apparent after the genocide that the Tutsi population had markedly decreased.
For Falun Gong, this sort of evidence is not available. When Falun Gong are not practicing the exercises in public, they are not easily identifiable as practitioners.
Bosniak Muslims in Srebrenica were being killed because of their ethnic and religious identities. Killing of Tutsis in Rwanda was racist. Falun Gong in China are Han Chinese. They have the same ethnic identity as the perpetrators. They were being killed for their beliefs. Yet, if they recanted, renounced and denounced their colleagues, they were spared. As well, those who continued to practice Falun Gong did so secretly, rather than in public. So, demographics could not tell us the extent of the loss.
There is, of course, a wealth of available evidence which shows the genocide which Falun Gong has suffered and is suffering. The problem here is not too little evidence, but rather too much. The conclusion of genocide comes from examining a massive amount of evidence. It is impossible to extract any one item from that mass and assert that the particular extracted item establishes the atrocity. The manner in which the conclusion of genocide is reached make the conclusion for the media time consuming to appreciate and difficult to report.
A sixth relevant factor for reporting is the manner in which the genocide is inflicted. The Rwanda genocide was inflicted, mostly, with machetes. As an aside, these machetes, it is worth noting, were imported primarily from China. The Srebrenica genocide was inflicted with machine guns and grenades. The genocide of Falun Gong was inflicted with scalpels.
This differentiation in means has led to a differentiation in appreciation. It is easy to appreciate that mass killings can occur by means of machetes, machine guns or grenades. Mass killings by scalpel is, to those unfamiliar with the research, at first grasp, hard to believe. Journalistic investigation and reporting of this form of genocide goes against the grain of what people have been led to expect.
The general view of organ transplantation is that it is a medical advance beneficial to humanity. Reporting on organ transplantation as an instrument of genocide defies expectations.
A seventh factor relevant to the differential reporting is the awareness that the global community has of the victim communities. The interethnic feuding in the Balkans is a matter of historical record, something which started World War I. The feuding is so well known that it has become a metaphor for feuding – balkanization. The notion that one element of the Balkan community would attack another element of the Balkan community in Srebrenica, far from being unexpected, was consistent, at least in the fact of the attack, if not the form and scope, with past behaviour in the area. As well, the targets, Muslims, are a large, well known, geographically dispersed, ancient community.
The division between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, though not as well-known as the division among ethnic and religious groups in the Balkans, is long standing. Belgian colonialism of Rwanda formalized and rigidified the distinction through identity cards. Tutsis were a ruling elite against which Hutus rebelled. Hutu attacks on Tutsis, which began towards the end of Belgian rule, continued and amplified after the colonial regime ended in 1962, causing a mass flight, albeit not a complete exodus, of Tutsis. It took only a glance at this history for journalists and their audience to be familiar with the Hutu – Tutsi divide.
Falun Gong is nowhere nearly as well known. The words “Falun” and “Gong” mean nothing in languages other than Chinese. The practice and beliefs of Falun Gong are recent, beginning in 1992 with the teachings of Li Hongzhi. Though the practice of Falun Gong has since spread around the world, the Falun Gong community, at the time, July 1999, that the Chinese Communist Party announced its decision to suppress the practice, was concentrated almost entirely in China.
The repression of the practice was matched by Chinese Government/ Communist Party disinformation about the practice. Many of those following the repression of Falun Gong had to find out about Falun Gong for the first time after the repression of Falun Gong, after the concomitant propaganda against Falun Gong had started. Outsiders were presented from the start of the persecution with competing narratives about an internal Chinese issue. Sorting that all out became for the media more difficult than figuring out the rights and wrongs of the competing narratives of perpetrators and victims in either Rwanda or Srebrenica.
An eighth factor relevant to reporting is media access. The media in Rwanda at the time of the genocide remained and reported as the genocide was happening. The media did not have access to Srebrenica at the time of the killings, but did have access to witnesses and survivors. With the killing of Falun Gong for their organs, media access to events and witnesses was and is almost non-existent.
Media can not get access to Chinese prisons and detention centres except through pre-arranged visits. There is no media access to transplant hospitals surgeries. In itself, this is hardly surprising. However, it makes the story of what was and is happening harder to tell.
South Korean television in 2017 broadcast the result of an undercover operation, following a transplant tourist patient who negotiated with a Chinese hospital for an organ transplant. The video was an enterprising eye opener, but provides only a glimpse of widespread, systematic, institutionalized, long standing abuse.
The ninth factor relevant to reporting is the interests that outsiders may have in not confronting the perpetrators. That factor is not that significant for Rwanda or Srebrenica. But it is significant for China. Part of the problem is access, not to the events, but to the territory. Reporters today can report from Rwanda and Srebrenica about what happened there without fear of losing access to the locations.
Any media outlet which reports from China about the persecution of Falun Gong does so at their peril. The reporters who investigate, write about or broadcast from China the persecution of Falun Gong can easily lose their status in China. So can the outlet which employs them.
As well, the ownership of some media influences their content. And the interests of ownership are typically financial. Financial interests of media owners may work against confronting China. That interest may prevent and undermine reporting by these media outlets about what is happening in China.
The tenth relevant factor for reporting is the ability of the victim community to mobilize. An organized community can take positions, make representations, issue statements, hold press conferences, and generally draw to the attention of the media their plight. A collection of individuals from the same community united only by their victimization, but without an overall organization are not going to be anywhere as effective in attracting media attention.
The Bosniak Muslim community and the Rwandan Tutsi community are, in this respect, far better equipped than the victim Falun Gong community. The Bosniak Muslim community and the Rwandan Tutsi community are circumscribed in their membership. They have community leadership and community institutions.
Falun Gong is a set of exercises with a spiritual foundation, a Chinese equivalent of yoga. All material relevant to the practice of Falun Gong is available for free on the internet. A person practising Falun Gong can start anytime, stop anytime, spend nothing, and tell no one. There are no membership lists. Although Falun Gong started in China, a practitioner does not need to be a national of China or ethnic Chinese and, outside of China, many are not.
With Falun Gong, there is an absence of organization. There are a variety of organizations which have sprung up within the Falun Gong community. Yet, each of those organizations represents only the members of the Falun Gong community which participate in that organization. The amorphous nature of the movement and the lack of overall direction means that there is nothing that members of the Falun Gong community can say to the media which represents the community as a whole.
An eleventh factor relevant to variations in reporting on genocide is the sympathy that outsiders may have for the ideology of the perpetrators. Those not implicated in the victimization of either Rwandan Tutsis or the Bosniak Muslims who take the side of the victimizers are few. There are indeed some who do this – conspiracy theorists, those who express ethnic solidarity with the victimizers, and those who share the hatred which generated the genocides. Yet, these groups are small and have little impact on media reporting of either the Rwandan Tutsi or the Bosniak Muslim genocide.
With Communist China, the matter is different. While communism does not now have the ideological pull it once had, and Communist China is far from a communist ideal, there are nonetheless many who have a tendency to give Communist China the benefit of the doubt, even when the evidence shows that the doubt is not reasonable. This is so because China at least professes to be communist and pays lip service to communist beliefs, no matter how far in practice they may stray from them. For many communists, Marxists, and radical socialists abroad, the fact that Communist China is saying at least partly the right thing matters more to them than that the Government and Party are not doing the right thing.
While this is a general phenomenon and not just a media phenomenon, it does have an impact on the media. There are, after all, left leaning as well as right leaning media. Left leaning media sometimes give Communist China more slack than they deserve.
Also relevant to variations in reporting on genocide is the factor of onus. When someone is accused of a crime, whether genocide or any other crime, the onus lies on the accuser. The standard of proof varies with the proceedings. However, the onus of proof remains the same no matter what the proceedings.
The onus for disclosure is different. The onus for disclosure lies on the holder of the documents to be disclosed. Perpetrators who hide or destroy the evidence may make the underlying wrong difficult to prove. However, in doing so, perpetrator institutions commit another wrong, a failure of transparency, for which they should be held accountable.
This distinction is important for China and the killing of Falun Gong for their organs. While the Serbian government in place at the time of massacre at Srebrenica and since could and should have disclosed more than they did, it nonetheless remained possible at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to establish that the crime of genocide had been committed at Srebrenica beyond a reasonable doubt. For Rwanda, disclosure was not a problem, because the RPF invaded Rwanda to stop the genocide and successfully defeated government forces in a matter of months.
For China, in contrast, disclosure is a significant issue. Ever since transplant volumes in China shot way up coincident with the mass arbitrary detention of Falun Gong, the Government of China has not provided a credible explanation for the wide discrepancy between the large number of organ transplants and what they claim to be the sources of organs. The absence of transparency lies squarely at the foot of the Government of China.
Although one researcher after another acting independently from each other have come to the conclusion that organs for transplants have come primarily from Falun Gong, also Uyghurs in large numbers, as well as Tibetans and House Christians, it does not fall to researchers to explain the sources of organs from transplants in China. The onus to provide this information falls on the Government of China, an onus they have not discharged.
For the media, typically, silence does not speak as loudly as words. The failure of China to meet its onus of disclosure and explanation is a story of nowhere near the same magnitude as a story with publicly available information of wrongdoing from the source of wrongs.
The thirteenth factor which impacts on reporting is the tendency to engage in false symmetry between the perpetrators and the victims. Where massive human rights violations occur, there are victims and there are perpetrators. Perpetrators in addition to denying the wrongs, blame the victims for their victimization. Those not paying too close attention see competing narratives. The propaganda of perpetrators create so much smoke, those not focused on events do not see the fire.
Those inflicting genocide in Rwanda on Tutsis and in Srebrenica on Bosniak Muslims claimed that they were acting in pre-emptive self-defence. The hollowness of those claims required attention to what was going on. For the media, that was not that hard to do, since the mass killing of innocents based on their ethnic and/ or religious identity was patently obvious.
There is this same false symmetry in China with Falun Gong victims. The Falun Gong community protest their victimization. The Chinese Government and Communist Party wheels out, in response, a litany of slanders against Falun Gong. It takes some familiarity with Falun Gong to appreciate that these slanders are fabrications, diversions to mislead the uninformed about the real reason for the repression, which was the popularity of the movement.
The media, in principle, should be able to avoid this false symmetry. In principle, they should have a more sophisticated approach to the evidence than their readers, viewers and listeners. Yet, all too often that is not the case. Rather than the media leading their audience, sometimes it is the audience which leads the media. In situation like the killing of Falun Gong for their organs, where the crime itself is not immediately obvious and victims are not a well-known community, the tendency to shrug off the victimization through false symmetry becomes particularly problematic.
The fourteenth and final factor I will mention is the different shades of commitment or indifference by outsiders. There is a strong outside connection to the genocide in Rwanda, because of the history of Rwanda as one of the European colonies, because of the widespread use of the French language and because of UN involvement in the country. The UN had sent a peacekeeping force into Rwanda a year before the genocide to help enforce a peacekeeping agreement between the RPF and the Government of Rwanda.
There was as well a good deal of global connection between outsiders and Bosnia, partly because of the Muslim connection, and partly there too because of UN involvement. The armed conflict in the Balkans had led to the establishment in 1992 in Bosnia of a UN peacekeeping force.
This global connection is nowhere near as strong when it comes to the victimization of Falun Gong in China. There were and are no UN forces in China. Although there was colonial oppression of China through the opium wars, there was no colonial occupation of China, other than Hong Kong. Western languages are not widespread in China. Falun Gong, though spiritually connected to Buddhism and Taoism, is distinct. Outsider indifference to what was and is happening is much more of a problem with China than it was for Rwanda and Bosnia at the time of the genocides there.
In theory, the media should work against that indifference. But often, as noted. the media follow their readers, listeners and viewers rather than lead them. The relative indifference of those who follow the media had and has an impact on the reporting of the victimization of Falun Gong.
In theory, the list of factors set out here could be lengthened or shortened. The general point would remain the same. Variations in reporting human rights violations are not necessarily linked to variations in gravity of the violations. Sometimes they are linked to factors which in principle may seem irrelevant, yet in practice have real impact.
We get caught in a vicious circle. There is less global reaction to some human rights violations than others for reasons which have nothing to do with the gravity of the violations. This lesser global reaction makes it easier for the violations to continue and harder for them to remedy.
Media reporting of human rights violation play an important role in helping to prevent the continuation of violations and remedy those which have occurred. Setting out the factors which, independently of the gravity of the violations, cause variations in reporting will not in itself end those variations. Yet, if the media and those who interact with them are aware of these factors, that awareness one would hope would lead to efforts to end variations which have nothing to do with the gravity of the violations.