Victim journalism allowed the UN security council to ignore humanitarian law

Jonathan Freedland's criticism of the way in which news is reported from Africa (We know Rwanda is the story that matters. Yet we still turn to Rooney, 29 June) was prompted by his role as a judge in this year's One World Media Awards. In reading and watching the entries for the awards, he found the suffering of victims in developing countries sometimes "unbearable" to watch. Journalists "try their best to humanise their tales of woe", he wrote, but this so often became "a mere technique in a numbingly repetitive formula".

This propensity for victim journalism is more damaging than he suggests. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda – which I have been researching and writing about for more than 16 years – this popular style of journalism had serious consequences. After the genocide was over, a first international inquiry concluded that, although the news coverage had been handicapped by danger on the ground, the western press, in characterising the genocide as "tribal anarchy", had been fundamentally irresponsible. While dead bodies were shown piling up in the streets, Rwanda was described as suffering from a centuries-old history of tribal warfare; the failure to properly report that this was a political crisis and that genocide was taking place – and thereby generate public pressure for something to be done to stop it – had contributed to international indifference and inaction.

In his column Freedland argued that we need to make a connection between remote suffering and our own lives. I suggest that this could be achieved if the images of human horror were accompanied by proper journalistic investigation into the decision-making of our politicians. In 1994 there had been no room anywhere to describe how "UN policy", which was devised by western politicians – and enunciated in the secret enclave of the security council of the UN – had helped to create the conditions that made genocide possible.

These same politicians and diplomats now blame the inadequate press coverage of Rwanda for their own inaction. They say they did not know what was happening. Yet in spite of this tragic ignorance, the UK government played a decisive role in the meetings of the security council. It was the UK that suggested the UN peacekeepers be withdrawn, leaving a "token force" in order to "appease public opinion". The British public was not to know that a relatively small force of reinforcements could have offered protection to civilians at risk. "Anyone other than a fool knew that military intervention was what was required," an Oxfam official said in an interview afterwards. Instead, the press reports bolstered the arguments from politicians that nothing could be done.

Just because you tell the tale of suffering and agony does not mean you have the whole story. In 1994 the press did not even begin to hold politicians to account for their failure to abide by international humanitarian law – including the 1948 genocide convention.

"This pain is not only going on over there, in the developing world," Freedland writes. "We're involved – even here, in our world." This is true. What Rwanda showed is how little true humanitarianism there is at the heart of states that both possess abundant resources and profess a commitment to human rights.