This week marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwanda genocide, which killed nearly one-in-seven people in the small African nation. Today, there is continuing debate about the role of the news media in the calamity – from the role local broadcasters and newspapers played in fuelling ethnic hatred, to concerns that the shallowness of international coverage in the early days contributed to the lethargic international response.

IPI draws on the experience of several journalists to reflect on the media coverage of the Rwanda genocide – and its impact today on press freedom in Rwanda. These commentaries also serve to help encourage discussion at the forthcoming IPI World Congress in South Africa, 12-15 April 2014.

The following commentary was published in the September 1994 issue of the IPI Report:

“What future has this child?” asked George Alagiah, of the BBC’s foreign affairs team, reporting from the Rwandan border in mid-July. He went on: “There are thousands more like her – the orphans of the conflict. We took those we could manage to the French military hospital. At times like this, it’s impossible not to cross the line that divides us – the observers – from those we observe.”

Surrounded by such misery, Alagiah and his team were impelled to do something, however small, to help. They could, of course, have devoted their whole time to it and used up their entire stock of food and water. But that is not why they were sent there; and that is not what the aid agencies want them to do.

The agencies, far from finding the cameras intrusive, welcome them wholeheartedly, give them every assistance (Alagiah had offers from four organisations to fly him into Goma) and compete for their attention. A television camera represents international attention; and international attention brings results. Yet, as Alagiah realised, it makes the camera a participant in the process of “doing something” (the phrase is that of Douglas Hurd, the British Foreign Secretary). Indeed, it often leads the way. Where hunger and bloodshed are concerned, the television teams have crossed the line unreservedly. To be purely impartial and objective in the face of circumstances like those in Rwanda is to be something less than human.

The outside world became aware of the present cycle of war-induced humanitarian disaster in Africa a decade ago, with the first pictures of the Ethiopian famine. That was not as bad as the situation in Rwanda now, but it nevertheless represented the start of a change in attitudes.

Before Ethiopia, things were clear-cut. Observers were observers; nothing more. If you compromised, you became an actor in the drama yourself, taking sides, influencing outcomes.

In 1970s America, in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam, it was fashionable to argue that television news had no business getting involved: correspondents and crew were pieces of machinery, like the camera itself, and if they started to participate in the events around them, it would lead to distortion and interference with the truth. Like many American attitudes, this one crossed the Atlantic in attenuated form, as a suggestion rather than an imperative. British reporters and cameramen might give medicine to someone who was ill, or even save someone’s life; but they would not refer to it in their reporting.

Now things have changed. The very notion of this kind of passivity has become distasteful. Viewers are often deeply offended if they believe that a camera team has gone on filming while people are being shot or hacked to death in front of them, without their intervening. Often of course, this judgment is made solely on the basis of the edited pictures which are broadcast; the viewer has no way of knowing what the cameraman did later, nor what other members of the team were doing at the time.

Another correspondent from the BBC foreign affairs unit, Jeremy Bowen, was in the Bosnian town of Mostar last winter when the area came under mortar fire. A man standing nearby was badly injured, and the cameraman kept filming while he was loaded on to a cart. But it was the sound recordist who had darted forward to help him, and who made sure he reached hospital.

There are times when instinct takes control. On Tiananmen Square on the night of the massacre in June 1989, my colleagues and I saw two Chinese soldiers being beaten to death by a mob. We could not endure to watch a third being killed, so we moved in to save him. The soldier belonged to the force which carried out the massacre that night, but a life is a life.

Sometimes, the decisions of whether or not to cross the line can have far-reaching results. In South Africa last March, three members of the extreme right-wing AWB – the organisation headed by Eugene Terreblanche – were shot dead in Bophuthatswana by a black policeman in front of a group of journalists and cameramen. Moments earlier, the three men, all of them wounded, had been answering the journalists’ questions and begging for help. Their summary execution had a profound effect in South Africa. At a stroke, it demonstrated that the weakness of the African in the face of white supremacy was at an end. The AWB was destroyed as a credible threat to the new political system in South Africa; its support dropped away, and it failed to disrupt the elections the following month. The shooting probably happened too quickly for the journalists or cameramen to have intervened; but if they had done so, the entire course of events in South Africa might have been a little different.

People nevertheless expect reporters and cameramen to behave as they themselves would hope to behave. Our audience is not satisfied that we should merely act as its eyes and ears; it wants us to act in certain circumstances as its conscience too. And the more impotence people feel in the face of suffering, the less willing they are to accept the notion that those on the spot can do nothing to help. As a result, the reporters can find themselves on the defensive, anxious to pre-empt criticism.

On July 5, in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, I reported on the terrible fate of three seriously disturbed mental patients at a psychiatric hospital. The nursing staff had fled and the refugees who were camping in the hospital had locked up the three patients. They were left to die of hunger and thirst. Nothing could be done; my colleagues and I could not conceivably have looked after three violent psychotics, and if we had let them out to forage for themselves, the refugees would have killed them. The fact that I pushed all the food and water I could find under the door of their cells did little to ease my conscience, or their suffering. But in my report I felt it necessary to make an oblique reference to the fact that I had crossed the line and done something – however slight – to help. This would not, I think, have happened a few years ago.

Most people feel utterly powerless when they see images like these. Sometimes, the sense of powerlessness is sublimated into anger, either against the reporter for not doing enough or against the fact that they are being told so much bad news; as though we go to Rwanda merely to upset them. And yet the viewer is not really powerless at all. The mere fact that large audiences are being told about these things is usually enough to goad governments into taking action.

In April, when the disaster in Rwanda was in the making, the United Nations did little and the Western powers nothing at all. Now the Western powers are vying with each other to show how much they are doing, because they know that people have seem the pictures, and want action to be taken. It is a pattern of behaviour which draws aid agencies, camera teams, television audiences and governments into an unspoken compact, and it can be extraordinarily effective. But a line has been crossed all the same. The observers have become full participants.

The writer was BBC’s foreign affairs editor in 1994 and today is the broadcaster’s world affairs editor. He reported from Rwanda during the genocide.