Book review: what dictatorship looks like to journalists on the inside

Anjan Sundaram was a mentor in an internationally funded programme to develop the press in Rwanda but he and his charges were no match for a state that wanted them cowed and obedient

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 March, 2016, 5:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 March, 2016, 5:01am

Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship

by Anjan Sundaram


In 1994, the world watched in horror as Hutus slaughtered Tutsis (mostly) in Rwanda. When it ended, Paul Kagame was heralded as one of the leaders of forces that ended the bloodshed.

As president since 2000, Kagame has fooled much of the world into thinking his country is a happy democracy. It has received tonnes of international funding because, on the surface, Rwanda is a shining example of stability. The capital is clean, it has modern roads and lighting, malls – all the trappings that look good to the Western eye – and many of his measures have improved people’s lives, from a reduced mortality rate to an expanding economy and national health insurance.

But Anjan Sundaram tells a different story, one so chilling and painful that it should encourage international eyes on elections there. Sundaram, a mathematician by training, published Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey into the Congo in 2014. In his latest book, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, Sundaram writes of his years as a mentor in an internationally funded programme to train young journalists in the fledgling democracy.

SEE ALSO: Rwandan president is Africa’s latest leader to seek extension of power

He had eager young students and people who had worked as journalists who wanted to wear the title more respectably. Increasingly, as they set out to do the serious work of watchdogs, they came under surveillance. One reporter in particular, Gibson, is a heartbreaking soul, a young man with integrity, talent and tenacity. He bought a couch as a symbol of the serenity he craved but ended up selling it to pay for his escape to Uganda.

A paper that took on the authorities had to close. Sundaram’s charges began turning, joining the reporting corps that fawned over the president and ran flattering, congratulatory articles about his work. One by one, students left the programme. The author approached foreign visitors with clout for help, and they scoffed, telling him they knew of the repression, but to give it time.

Kagame has received accolades from Bill and Melinda Gates, former American president Bill Clinton and many other world leaders. Kagame was a victim of trauma himself as a refugee to Uganda when he was a child. His people, the Tutsis, were far and away the most numerous victims of 1994’s genocide.

Kagame is meticulous, learned and savvy, but he has carried his promising leadership into the trap that catches so many who get power, especially when their countries are poor and racked by destruction.

There is residual messiness and anxiety when countries emerge from trauma, and many leaders respond with dominance to maintain quiet. That just leads to disquiet. Dissent – even mild criticism – is treated as a threat. This is the way dictators seal the fate of their nations. As they clamp down, the initial pushback makes them clamp down harder, making docile people paranoid as they themselves get more paranoid, until nobody trusts anybody.

Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship reveals this scenario on a personal level, leading the reader to a heightened recognition of how fear can seep into any society, subtly at first, and then malignantly transformative. Kagame’s rule is supposed to end in 2017, but the term limits now in place are expected to be overturned.

Tribune News Service