Trial by television: NBC pursues Rwandan genocidaire

This week’s New Republic has a great feature on Leopold Munyakazi, a Rwandan exile and American college professor accused of initiating a mass murder during the genocide in 1994.

NBC is going after Munyakazi as part of a new series focused on war criminals living in the United States. For NBC, it’s a simple, compelling story about good vs. evil:

After class, a swirling retinue of about ten cameramen, technicians, and professional interrogators descended on Munyakazi, a broad-faced middle-aged man with an accented, lilting voice. The professor, who had been given little notice, was stunned and refused to talk on camera. After some time, two members of the faculty who knew Munyakazi, a philosophy professor and the director of the school’s peace-studies program, joined the standoff, which only heightened the tension. The professors angrily challenged the Rwandan prosecutor. “They kept talking about ‘competing narratives’ of the genocide,” Ciralsky says. “Which really could be considered code for denying the genocide.”

Genocide is black and white, but the case against Munyakazi is very gray. The Rwandan’s governments efforts to prosecute him seem deeply politicized. At the same time, Munyakazi defense is full of inconsistencies. The professor also has a habit of blaming the genocide on its victims.

The article’s attitude toward NBC’s trial-by-television is mostly contemptuous, but there is a silver lining to the cloud:

[NBC's new series] “The Wanted” has inspired a great deal of critical derision–Variety called it “a lowlight in a year filled with them for the news divisions,” while the Los Angeles Times deemed its style “ridiculous”–but the show’s producers have made at least one unique contribution to the debate over Munyakazi: They actually talked to Rwandans about him. The episode on the professor’s case, which is likely to air in August, will give voice to this set of witnesses. In one interview, a former policeman who served time in jail after the genocide tells the investigators that Munyakazi asked him for more bullets for his AK-47. A confessed genocidaire tells them that the professor led him on “night patrols” that searched for Tutsis hiding in the bush. A stooped woman squats on a riverbank and recounts how she survived a massacre on that same spot, a massacre she believes Munyakazi helped to inspire. “Where is justice? They should pay for what they did,” she says. “That’s why we’re here,” Scott Tyler, the show’s ex-Navy Seal, solemnly replies.

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