The Rwanda The World Doesn't Know

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Anjan Sundaram

An interview with Anjan Sundaram, author of "Bad news: Last journalists in a dictatorship"

Journalist Anjan Sundaram’s book on Rwanda exposes a terrifying dictatorship at the heart of Africa that few people get to hear about. Paul Kagame has tremendously succeeded – with the eager help of his western backers - to feed the world a carefully choreographed false narrative. His chilling tyranny is so pervasive and entrenched that Rwandans police themselves unbidden.

Zahra Moloo: What took you to Rwanda and what inspired you to write this book?

Anjan Sundaram: I went to Rwanda in 2009 to write my first book about Congo and really I was looking for a quiet place. I thought the country was peaceful, even a little boring, a great place to write a book. I began to teach local journalists as a way to make some money and also engage with local society, but very quickly, I learnt that the local journalists I was working with were living and working in a climate of great repression. One of them had been beaten into a coma, after bringing up the harassment of the press in front of President Kagame of Rwanda. Another young woman had been in prison for many years and physically and psychologically abused, she was sick with HIV. These stories alerted me to the climate of repression that largely goes untold about Rwanda.

Zahra Moloo: Can you tell me more about the journalists you worked with in the program? One of your students, Gibson, started a magazine, and the stories that they were covering were very innocuous stories, about malnutrition, things that seem pretty normal on the surface. What was it, or why is it, so difficult to write about these kinds of issues?

Anjan Sundaram: The Rwandan government is extremely sensitive to any kind of criticism. It’s almost impossible to practice journalism in a normal way. I was shocked when I arrived and when I asked my students “Could you question the national budget?” and they said, “No way. Our lives and physical safety would be endangered were we to question government decisions, even basic government decisions.” Gibson was one of my most talented students, one of the students I became closest to. He was a student of philosophy, a remarkably intelligent man. What he tried to do was not to address the problem of malnutrition in Rwanda directly, because that would have been too dangerous. He began to write articles that inform mothers and parents how they might feed their children without explicitly saying that there was a problem of malnutrition.

Officially, hunger had been abolished in Rwanda. Agricultural productivity had increased several times and there was no problem of hunger. Even today, a month ago, there was a report of a hundred thousand people being affected by famine in Rwanda, and this famine is generalized in all of East Africa. There was a single report and we've heard nothing since. Same thing happened in 2007: there were reports of famine in South East Rwanda and North East Burundi. In North East Burundi, aid organizations came in hordes, feeding people, protecting people, saving people. In Rwanda officially there was no famine. We don’t know how many people died, whether they were saved or what was done to help them.

This is the situation in Rwanda. Any news that is seen as criticizing the government, that could be anything, the government takes very personally and sees it as criticism of its governance style. For that reason, journalists remain silent, huge problems in society go untold and therefore unaddressed. I write in my book that a society that can’t speak is like a body that can’t feel pain.

Zahra Moloo: Going through the book, you really get into the lives of some of your students. Can you give a few examples of what happened to them over the course of your time teaching?

Anjan Sundaram: Among the twelve journalists I taught, none of them are practicing today. One of my colleagues was shot dead on the day he criticized Paul Kagame. Two others fled the country fearing for their lives. Others abandoned journalism or joined the presidential propaganda team. I’ve documented in my book over 60 journalists who over the last 20 years have fled the country, fearing for their lives, disappeared, been imprisoned, tortured, arrested or killed after criticizing the Rwandan government. That’s one journalist every four months. This intimidation and repression of the free press in Rwanda has gone largely untold in Rwanda and in the international press.

Zahra Moloo: And why do you think that is - why is it that this narrative persists, that Rwanda is a ‘successful’ country, that it’s very successful economically, that it knows how to carry out development activities? Why is there this silence?

Anjan Sundaram: The Rwandan government’s propaganda has been really powerful and it’s been amplified by the destruction of the local press. The international press relies heavily on local journalists for the news that we read. Any foreign correspondent worth his or her salt will tell you that the reporting is only as good as the local journalists they are working with. In Rwanda these local journalists are silent and this means that the foreign correspondents who come into Rwanda don’t have credible information. I remember I met a Russian UN worker in Rwanda, a few days after he arrived in the country and I asked him, ‘What do you think of Rwanda?’ and he laughed and said, ‘It’s just like the Soviet Union. I opened the newspaper this morning and there’s only good news.’

So many journalists who come into Rwanda and have not lived in a dictatorship might see these positive stories, all this good news and believe that it’s true. But people who’ve lived in a dictatorship know that one needs to listen differently to people in a dictatorship when they cannot speak freely. They see only good news; they see it as a sign that something is wrong here. So it takes a different way of listening. The Western press, I would say, is inadequately prepared to report on dictatorships in which the local press has been silenced in quite a sophisticated fashion.

For the rest of the interview please see

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