Silencing of free press spells trouble for Rwanda’s future


Near the end of his riveting if unrelievedly sombre chronicle of Rwanda’s descent into total one-man rule, the American journalist Anjan Sundaram recounts the day in 2010 one of his colleagues explained to him why Rwandan president Paul Kagame is systematically stifling the country’s free press and literally eradicating its journalists. “He has a plan in mind starting with this election to keep power with his close ones for many generations,” he told the author.

Sundaram was in Rwanda on an assignment to train journalists in a program financed by the United Kingdom and the European Union, just two of the donor countries who underwrite half Rwanda’s budget — and the colleague was a student of his. Clearly, he was very well-sourced. At the end of last year the Rwandan people voted in what is widely regarded as a rigged referendum to amend the constitution to permit Kagame to run for an unprecedented third seven-year term and potentially hold power until 2034. And so aside from its other merits, BAD NEWS, The Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, is also quite prophetic.

Initially, Sundaram meets with some success enlisting a coterie of talented young reporters. But over the course of this story, one after another “disappears”: one is beaten into a coma and then escapes abroad; another is murdered in cold blood; yet another is imprisoned; and finally, the “hero,” of sorts, of this book, a young man named Gibson, is bullied and brutalized into catatonic irrelevance.

Along the way, Rwanda’s free press is systematically shut down, starting with the country’s premier newspaper, Umuseso. A seasoned Rwandan journalist named Moses succinctly captures the implication of this muzzling of independent information sources. “When Umuseso closed . . . it was the beginning of the ‘pensee unique.’ Of a single way of thinking.”

There is something particularly chilling about the way Kagame exercises power — absolute power — in his country and it distills down to “mind control.” At another point in the book, one of Sundaram’s more cynical, if perceptive, colleagues explains how power is exercised in Rwanda. “You know, people are only free when they are not.” He pointed to his head and then said “The control is here, once you are controlled here, then they let you walk around like you are free.”

At the conclusion of Bad News, Sundaram is harshly critical of countries in the West, Canada likely included, that finance Kagame’s brutal regime and demand no accountability for his accumulating sins.

It’s a profound warning of the dangers of not having a free press.

The Toronto Star

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