The power of information

People are still asking today how it was that the world failed to mobilise during the Rwanda genocide. Nearly a million Africans were hacked and slaughtered, making it one of the most appalling genocides in history — yet the world didn’t lift a finger.

Could it be that the world (and even Africa itself) doesn’t really care a jot about what happens on the “dark continent”? Or is it the case the world failed to act because there simply wasn’t the right information reaching the right places?

It seems hard to believe that a genocide on the scale of Rwanda can go relatively unnoticed. But it was 1994 and information flows out of and into Africa weren’t what they are now. At that time the internet had barely surfaced and the Mail & Guardian Online, Africa’s first online news service, had only just started to operate as a basic e-mail-based text newsletter.

Information on the scale and horror of the genocide just did not get out quickly enough to touch the hearts and minds of world society to put pressure on politicians and world bodies to act. And when the information did get out, it was too late.

It’s as if this kind of thing could never happen in the developed world. Tony Blair sneezes and we know about it. More than 800 000 Africans are brutally hacked to death with machetes and the most we hear is tumbleweed bouncing down the corridor.

It’s as if this kind of thing could never go unnoticed today in the information age and the age of the internet. Had the internet been as big as it is now during the Rwanda massacre it is doubtful that such a crisis could have been so insulated from the rest of the world. Imagine the online frenzy that would have built up, starting via e-mails, forum postings and blogs and then passing onto traditional media.

There just weren’t the information networks in place to expose what was happening on the ground and thus mobilise the world into action. Even now, Africa rarely tells its own story. It relies heavily on stories from foreign press agencies catering for a foreign audience, coloured by their own agendas and perceptions.

It was precisely this problem that gave rise to a remarkable United Nations news agency called the Integrated Regional Information Networks or IRIN. The agency, now almost 10 years old, was founded in 1995 by two journalists and its Nairobi-based co-ordinator Pat Banks directly as a result of the Rwanda genocides.

It started off as three people in one country as a text service covering Rwanda, Burundi, Eastern DRC and the refugee camps in Tanzania, providing news wraps and verification of stories issued by wire services.

But today, it’s mushroomed into a news network covering 46 countries in Africa, eight in Central Asia and also Iraq. It’s about to add Nepal and Yemen to its portfolio of countries. It has a staff of 53 international and national staff reporters and about 66 stringers in countries where IRIN does not have a presence. IRIN has a radio branch that looks after Angola and Afghanistan and produced mini-documentaries on the Darfur Crisis, the impact of opium on the peace process in Afghanistan and most recently a film on sexual violence as a weapon of war, which was filmed in the DRC and Liberia.

Banks sees IRIN as a “humanitarian news service”, designed not only to inform but to make people act. It’s a news agency designed to save lives and prevent atrocity. It’s all for free, because the idea is to make international decision makers aware of the crises and their underlying causes. Banks says the Internet has helped magnify IRIN’s outreach “a thousand fold”. Even in countries with poor Internet access, local papers are often among the select few to have access to e-mail and hence to IRIN.

IRIN more than the AFPs, APs and Reuters of this world is telling Africa’s story and ensuring the world knows the good and the bad. Most importantly, it is there as the world’s conscience to make sure the information gets out there and the world acts — making sure another Rwanda will never happen again.

Matthew Buckland: Publisher


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