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The last Journalists in a dictatorship 0

Anjan Sundaram’s new book, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, takes aim at the vaunted position Rwanda enjoys in the western imagination.

Far from being a success story of post-conflict peacebuilding since the 1994 genocide, Sundaram’s Rwanda exists in an authoritarian bubble characterized by fear and repression. Over the course of nearly five years living in the country, Sundaram witnessed the steady dismantling of Rwanda’s press corps and the stifling of free speech more broadly. In order to survive, some of Sundaram’s students, colleagues and friends reinvented themselves as regime propagandists, while others went into hiding or fled the country entirely. By silencing and co-opting the press, Sundaram argues, the government has largely succeeded in destroying the possibilities for independent journalism in Rwanda. I recently spoke with Sundaram about Bad News, the nature of political repression in Rwanda, and his experience working with journalists in a place where even mild criticism of the government can cost one their life.

What brought you to Rwanda? Did you know what you were getting yourself into when you decided to relocate there?

I went to Rwanda in 2009. At the time, I was looking for a quiet place to write my first book, Stringer about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda seemed like a quiet, calm country; peaceful, maybe even a little bit boring. Rwanda also happens to share a border with Congo, and so I thought that in the event that I needed some inspiration while writing Stringer I could jump across the border. What I knew about Rwanda was what you’ll continue to find in the press today – that it is a harmonious country that is recovering from the genocide and making great progress.

But I was also offered a job teaching and working with Rwandan journalists in a program funded by the European Union and the United Kingdom. I thought that this would be a great way to engage with society, working alongside my journalist colleagues in the country. What I quickly realized was that they were operating in an incredibly repressive environment. One journalist told me about how he had been beaten into a coma after he brought up the issue of press harassment in front of President Paul Kagame at a press conference. Another student, who was sick with HIV, told me about how during imprisonment she was dragged from room to room, not allowed to sleep, driven to exhaustion, and how her child was effectively orphaned during this time. These journalists were special. They were some of the last independent journalists left in the country.

The Rwanda you describe is almost totalitarian in nature.

I didn’t write this book from the perch of free speech evangelism. I focused on journalism in the book because I wanted to explore the consequences of a collapse of the free press. What happens to society? As I write in the book, “a society that cannot speak is like a body that cannot feel pain.” A crucial feedback mechanism is lost, and the government becomes capable – whether voluntary or involuntary – of incredible harm.

What is troubling about Rwanda is that the entire country is controlled at a very minute level. The country is divided into villages, each village has between one hundred and 150 families, each with a chief and an informer. Orders passed from the central government down to the villages travel very efficiently. It was this same structure that was used to execute the genocide in 1994, and was one of the reasons for the genocide’s speed and efficiency. As soon as the order was issued in Kigali, the killing commenced nearly simultaneously across the country. People went out to kill after orders were made by the local cells. That structure is still in place today, and President Kagame uses it to pursue a variety of ends.

He decides, for example, that plastic bags are bad for the environment. And so almost overnight, plastic bags basically disappeared from the country. Rubber slippers should be worn by everyone, he decides. Again, rubber slippers appear on people’s feet almost overnight. And during elections, Kagame orders that everyone get out and vote, leading to participation rates in Rwanda of 95 percent, whereas in other countries you’d get closer to 30 percent. The power of this system is extraordinary. Because it was used during the genocide, many Rwandans I know are incredibly worried about how it might be used in a country increasingly totalitarian, in which there are no alternatives to Kagame’s power, and in which society hears only one voice – that of the government.

There’s a moment in the book where one of the Rwandan journalists cautions you not to think so much about what you see, but instead to look for the things you don’t. And it seems to me that this idea echoes in the way in which journalists look to get around the government in their reporting on the country. Can you talk about how some journalists have gone about doing this, to the extent they’re able to?

That’s a great question. The thing about dictatorships in general – and Rwanda is an example of a modern-day dictatorship – is that the world has moved well beyond Cold War stereotypes, with a few exceptions like North Korea. In a modern dictatorship, spies in trench coats don’t follow you on the streets, the phone lines don’t crackle. What you have instead is something much more sophisticated. Politicians wear Western suits and announce that their country is open for business. You have multi-party elections. It’s a very different facade. In order to understand modern tyranny, then, you have to learn to listen and see quite differently. The example you referred to came from one of my students, Gibson, who taught me how to look, to see not what the government shows you, but what it hides.

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by Michael Busch

Photo credits: Africasacountry

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