How ‘Big Brother’ is destroying free speech in Rwanda

Published by The Observer (10th January)

Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship by Anjan Sundaram (Bloomsbury)

The text arrived one evening: ‘My life is in danger. I think I may die tonight.’ It came from Gibson, a talented young Rwandan journalist who was used to living in fear given his job. He avoided seeing his family to protect them, sent a neighbouring boy for his shopping to ensure he was seen as little as possible in public. But then he started a magazine that in its first edition provided information to mothers struggling to feed malnourished children – and this undermined an official narrative that the nation’s president had banished hunger.

Yet he was not killed, unlike others brave enough to pursue proper journalism in Rwanda. Instead, he was broken in different ways – beaten by police, intimidated by people he thought were friends, forced to flee the country, threatened even in Uganda. Eventually this idealistic man was driven to self-destruction, terrified even to see a doctor for fear they were secret agents. ‘The government had not needed to kill him,’ writes Anjan Sundaram. ‘They just made him useless, ruined his mind with paranoia by turning on him those he loved and trusted most.’

The tragedy of Gibson runs like a thread through this slim book by Sundaram, a reporter who spent almost five years in Rwanda after freelancing in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. He was the author’s favourite student on a journalism training project funded by Britain and the European Union, which gave him a ringside seat on the creeping repression of Paul Kagame’s government. The result is a superb exposé of a dictatorship as he observes how the tentacles of totalitarianism squeeze the life from a society.

Bad News is an important book that should shatter any lingering faith people might hold in Kagame’s hideous regime. Sundaram details how his students end up crushed by the system, either promoting its Orwellian messages or behind bars if they refuse to conform. One becomes the president’s propagandist. Another, who befriends him, turns out to be a government stooge. A third ends up paraded before the press in prison garb, her head shaved and child effectively orphaned; she was sentenced to 17 years in jail after state prosecutors said she implied Rwandans were unhappy with their rulers.

Such damning details offer unusual insight into a police state that became an aid darling in the west. It opens with the writer investigating an explosion, only to be told by a security official that he was imagining things. He explains how Kagame exerts control through a benign-sounding system of villages, the nation broken down into small blocks of families, each with a head, security officer and informer. On the one hand, this led to the sudden eradication of plastic bags – but on the other, it strips away privacy and ensures constant monitoring.

Sundaram travels deep into the country during the rainy season to discover scenes he compares to war, the landscape littered with huts destroyed and traditional grass roofs burnt off. Children are sick, old people shake with malaria, families are squashed together in makeshift shelters or living with animals. Yet he is mystified since there are no signs of conflict. Finally, villagers admit they destroyed their own homes after a government order, leaving him pondering the humiliation of a woman who tells him Kagame is a visionary for such signs of progress. ‘She said the president was a kind man for thinking of the poor.’

This is a desolate work, taut prose describing the stifling atmosphere of a nation trapped in fear. Yet equally depressing are the delusions of western donors, played so skilfully by Kagame as they funnel huge sums into his state then serve as cheerleaders for this bloodstained war criminal. He has just shown again how he manipulates ‘democracy’ with a referendum to ensure he can stay in power until 2034; as Sundaram says, who dares vote against such a government when it orders people to mark ballots with thumbprints?

The author admits even his small programme was mandated not to challenge the government, sticking only to sanctioned subjects such as ‘poverty reduction’. One embassy official warns if they mention repression they will be expelled. When concerns over freedom of expression emerge, a committee is set up to investigate, with journalists represented by a former police officer. Donors invest in a parliamentary radio station, equip the electoral body with technology, train a media council – then entrust such projects to the government, ensuring they are used to tighten its grip.

Sundaram says the result, with even United Nations bodies banned or bullied, has created “a mirage of a country”. Papers open as journalism is destroyed. Parties appear as political space disappears. Criticism of Kagame’s brutal actions during the genocide is silenced. At one stage, the author questions a foreign diplomat about pouring money into the regime’s pocket. ‘I have no problem with giving money to a dictator,’ the smug diplomat replies. ‘I’m proud to be giving him money… we will influence the government in the right direction.’

Such shameful stupidity shows how western governments end up as accomplices to terror and apologists for despotism. The book ends with a list of journalists assaulted, deported, forced to flee, jailed, kidnapped, killed or going missing after criticising Kagame’s government. It takes 12 pages to detail all the cases yet Sundaram admits it is not exhaustive.

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