It’s the Tenth Anniversary of When the Media Declared “Genocide” in Darfur

Ed note. The data in this post come from an old study I conducted using LexisNexis search terms. I revisit the data today, which is the 10 year anniversary of the media’s awakening to the Darfur criss. 

Today marks the first time a major American newspaper published an article about a potential genocide in Darfur.

In a February 25, 2004 Washington Post op-ed titled “Un-noticed Genocide,” Eric Reeves, a Sudan activist and professor of English literature at Smith College, described horrific scenes of the conflict in Darfur and concluded,  “There can be no reasonable skepticism about Khartoum’s use of [the janjaweed] to “destroy, in whole or in part, ethnic or racial groups” — in short, to commit genocide.”

This was the first mention of “Darfur” and “genocide” in the same breath. Between that date and a September 9, 2004 Senate hearing in which then-Secretary of State Colin Powell testified that the State Department has evidence of on-genocide in Darfur, the New York Times ran a total of 68 items mentioning “Darfur” and “genocide.” Of these 68 items, 29 came from news desks.  The other 39 items appeared on opinion pages.  The Washington Post mentioned Darfur and genocide a total of 67 times, 27 of which from news desks and 40 from the opinion pages.

One month of media silence followed Reeves’ February 15 op-ed, until New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof travelled to the region. Kristof led a March 25, column (date-lined “along the Chad-Sudan border”) with, “The most vicious ethnic cleansing you’ve never heard of is unfolding here in the southeastern fringes of the Sahara Desert. It’s a campaign of murder, rape and pillage by Sudan’s Arab rulers that has forced 700,000 black African Sudanese to flee their villages.[i]”  In his next column, two days later, Kristof revised his description of the situation from “ethnic cleansing” to “genocide.”  “In my last column, I called these actions ‘’ethnic cleansing,’ wrote Kristof. “But let’s be blunt: Sudan’s behavior also easily meets the definition of genocide in Article 2 of the 1948 convention against genocide. That convention not only authorizes but also obligates the nations ratifying it — including the U.S. — to stand up to genocide.”[ii]

With 10 subsequent columns written about Darfur in the prescribed time period Kristof emerged as the media’s leading voice on Darfur.  He would not equivocate from his view that Darfur was a “genocide.” He used phrases like “a kaleidoscope of genocide[iii]” and “Sudan’s final solution”[iv] to drive this point home. In a particularly telling column, titled “Dare We Call it Genocide?”, Kristof described his encounters with some victims and concluded, “if she and her people aren’t victims of genocide, then the word has no meaning.” [v]

Beyond Kristof, the editorial pages of the two papers played a leading role in advancing the narrative of genocide in Darfur.  An unsigned editorial in The Washington Post on April 3 did not use the term genocide to outright describe Darfur, but did call the conflict, “a horrific campaign of ethnic cleansing.”[vi]   The editorial did, however, peg off of the 10-year anniversary of the April 1994 Rwandan genocide so the message was clear. The New York Times similarly used that peg for an unsigned editorial on April 7 that raised the specter of “another Rwanda,” but declined to outright describe Darfur as a “genocide.[vii]”    Subsequent unsigned editorials from both papers would forthrightly call the conflict a “genocide.”

The ten-year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide also provided a convenient news peg for solicited opinion pieces about Darfur, such as an April 6 op-ed from Samantha Power, whose book ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.  In her piece, titled “Remember Rwanda, But Take Action in Darfur,” Power would not declare as forthrightly as Reeves or Kristof that Darfur was an on-going genocide.  Rather, she argued that such a focus was largely a distraction.  “In the case of Sudan, American officials need not focus on whether the killings meet the definition of genocide set by the 1948 Genocide Convention,” wrote Power. “They should focus instead on trying to stop them.[viii]

Op-eds from John Prendergast, then of the International Crisis Group, Gayle Smith and Susan Rice, (both former Clinton Administration officials and, at the time, think tank scholars), Jerry Fowler of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum,  Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Humanitarian worker Bob McPhearson, and a second op-ed from Eric Reeves appeared in each of the papers.  Not all addressed the question of genocide directly, but each did advance the basic narrative that 1) A grave human rights catastrophe was being visited upon Darfur’s “African” civilians.  2) These atrocities were being committed on the basis of race by the Arab janjaweed and Arab government of Sudan.  3) A hard line against Sudan was needed to stop the atrocities.  In the entire period under study, no unsigned editorials from either paper deviated from this frame.

The only dissenting voice to appear on the op-ed pages of either paper was Sam Dealey, a former Asia Correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. In an August 8 New York Times piece, titled “Misreading the Truth in Sudan,” Dealey questioned that dominant narrative to suggest that the story is more “complex” in the sense that ethnic allegiances were not clearly defined and that a hard line against the government of Sudan could exacerbate the situation.[ix]

News Desks Take Notice 

The news desks of the Washington Post and the New York Times were comparatively slow to pick up on the Darfur story.  After three columns from Kristof, two editorials and one op-ed from an outside contributor, the New York Times ran its first piece on Darfur and genocide not to appear on the editorial page on April 8.  The brief article, from the Times’ foreign desk, reported on a written statement from President Bush and remarks from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan regarding the situation in Darfur.[i]  It took nearly one additional month for The Washington Post to publish its first item on Darfur and genocide outside of the opinion pages. On May 6, UN reporter Colum Lynch wrote an item about a new Human Rights Watch report that alleged “ethnic cleansing” in Darfur.[ii]  As was the case with the New York Times, a total of six opinion pieces preceded the paper’s first news article on Darfur.

Both papers addressed the question of genocide directly in articles describing the United States’ government decision to dispatch a team of researchers to the region to conduct a survey of the victims to deduce whether or not the atrocities rose to the level of genocide.  Secretary of State Colin Powell would later rely on this survey to make his declaration that Darfur amounted to genocide.

In these articles, reporters frequently quoted the very same people who would appear on their op-ed pages.  For instance, a July 24 Times piece by Africa reporter Marc Lacey  titled “In Darfur, Appalling Atrocity, but is that Genocide?” quoted John Prendergast (who came down on the affirmative.)  Similarly, a September 8 story about the survey by The Washington Post’s Emily Wax quoted Jerry Fowler, the author of a June 4 Post Sunday Outlook story titled, “In Sudan, Staring Genocide in the Face.”[iv]  This reporting served to reinforce the dominant narrative of the conflict in Darfur—a narrative that was driven, in part, by opinion pieces from Prendergast and Fowler in the Times and Post respectively.

Why this matters

If you want people to pay attention to an atrocity unfolding in a forlorn part of the world, “genocide” will catch people’s attention in a way that “mass killing” would not. We are seeing this dynamic unfolding right now in the Central African Republic, which is descending into ethnic violence. It was not until French and UN officials started warning of a potential genocide that the international community kicked into gear and started to take action.  Earlier this month, the New York Times invoked the specter of  “genocide” in an editorial about CAR.

Genocide, though, has a very specific definition:  it does not mean mass killing. It means mass killing with an intent to destroy a population based on ethnicity or race. In other words, the intention of the perpetrators is to eradicate a population because of who they are, not what militia they support or their political affiliation.

Darfur was invisible to most Americans — even those of us who follow foreign affairs — until 10 years ago today. Invoking “genocide” caught our attention. It was how a civil war in a desolate part of the world became a household name in the USA.  It was how a large social movement with a diverse constituency coalesced to “Save Darfur.” It was how Darfur become a priority for George Bush’s State Department, even in the midst of two failing wars.  (For a book length discussion of how the Save Darfur movement affected US policy read Fighting for Darfur by Rebecca Hamilton).

Let me be clear:  I believe what happened in Darfur was a “genocide.” Among other things, I base this conclusion on evidence gathered by the State Department from interviews with Darfur refugees in Chad. The International Criminal Court prosecutor also believed there was enough evidence to issue an indictment for genocide, which he did in 2005. That opinion is dominant, but it is not universal: a January 2005 UN Commission of Inquiry report did not substantiate claims of genocide.

Regardless of how you come down on this question, it is clear that “genocide” became a rallying point. Without “genocide” Darfur would probably still be invisible to most Americans. This is a problem.

We need to get to the point where invoking “genocide” is not a necessary condition to wake Americans and policymakers to a mass atrocity unfolding. It should not be a crutch, invoked to drive attention or resources to a crisis. The severity of the crisis is what should motivate people and policy makers, “genocide” or not.




[i] “Don’t Let Sudan’s Ethnic Cleansing Go On,” Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, March 25, 2004

[ii] “Will We Say ‘Never Again,’ Yet Again?” Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, March 27, 2004

[iii]  “Cruel Choices” Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, April 14, 2004

[iv] “Sudan’s Final Solution” Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, June 12 2004

[v] ““Dare We Call it Genocide?”, Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, June 14 2004

[vi] “Crisis in Darfur,” Unsigned editorial, The Washington Post, April 3, 2004

[vii] “Peril in Sudan,” Unsigned Editorial, The New York Times, April 7, 2004

[viii] Remember Rwanda, But Take Action in Sudan,” Samantha Power, The New York Times, April 6, 2004

[ix] “Misreading the Truth in Sudan,” Sam Dealey, The New York Times, August 8 2004


News Desks Take Notice

[i] “Brutal Conflict in Sudan Brings Warnings from Bush and Annan,” Somini Sengupta, April 8 2004

[ii] “Sudan Blamed in ‘Cleansing,’ Colum Lynch, The Washington Post May 6 2004

[iv] “In Sudan, Staring Genocide in the Face,” Jerry Fowler, June 4 2004


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