Rwanda’s ethnic bloodletting of 1994, where an estimated 800,000 people were killed, has been the topic of many books, documentaries, and feature films. However, post-genocidal Rwanda has not gained that much of international attention except for the narrative that the state under President Paul Kagame is advancing as a prosperous, modern, orderly state with tremendous social and economic progress. Also Read - 378 Carat White Diamond Found in This Mine. Can You Guess The Price?
Indian-born reporter and author Anjan Sundaram, in his latest book, “Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship,” paints a different picture where President Kagame is not a hero who fostered reconciliation and democracy but an autocratic leader whose regime crushes free press and any dissent. His jarringly intimate record is one of the first exposé of the post-genocide Rwandan dictatorship aimed at a general readership. Also Read - The Next Pandemic? Scientist Who Discovered Ebola Warns That New Deadly 'Disease X' Could Hit Humans Soon!
In a recent book reading event organized by South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) at BookCourt in New York City, Sundaram discussed the dwindling press freedom in Rwanda and its impact on the nation’s progress. He read the first chapter of his book which was followed by a discussion. Also Read - Wait, What? Man Punches a Starving Lion in The Face as It Tries to Eat Him in Botswana, Survives Attack
“Bad News” is the story of Sundaram’s time running a European funded journalist’s training program out of the Rwandan capital of Kigali between 2009 and 2013. A Yale graduate, Sundaram moved from the Republic of Congo, where he worked as a freelance reporter, to Rwanda to write his first book: Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo. He took on the teaching job to get by. He was oblivious to the situation on the ground until his students told him.
“I went to Rwanda in 2009 in a hope to find a quiet place to work on my first book,” Sundaram said. “I didn’t know about the situation in the country. Like many people, I too read positive stories about how Rwanda had successfully come through the genocide, and that nation was rebuilding, and people were reconciling. But almost as I reached Kigali, my students began to tell me about the problems, the harassment they faced, and it became apparent that they were in a very precarious situation.”
The book details how his students ended up crushed, assaulted, forced to flee the country, imprisoned or killed by the system for refusing to conform.
“Among the 12 journalists I began to teach, none of them are practicing today. One colleague of mine was shot dead, two girls imprisoned, two others fled to Europe fearing for their lives, others joined the president’s propaganda team, and the rest simply stopped practicing because it was too dangerous,” he said.
President Kagame, who seized power after the 1994 genocide, is often held up as a beacon of progress and modernity in Central Africa and is the recipient of billions of dollars each year in aid from the western government. However, in the book, Sundaram argued that Rwanda’s much-vaunted development statistics are skewed and that he “wouldn’t trust in a government” that systematically stifles the country’s free speech and eradicates its journalists.
“It is not news that repressive government can effect progress, but the unfortunate reality is that years of progress ends with catastrophe and turmoil because there is no transfer of power,” Sundaram said.
“The statistics that child mortality is gone down, the economy is growing by an average of eight percent are government figures, no Rwandan can challenge these figures and obtain any kind of reasonable response from the government. I wouldn’t trust the United States or any other government if there are no checks and balances, no free press,” he added.
Sundaram claimed that many Rwandans refute the government figures in private and that they don’t see the same progress as being reported.
“On healthcare, for example, Kagame is lauded for his healthcare initiatives, I have spoken to Rwandans they were afraid to visit a doctor for what they were doing to them. They had no possibility to challenge the doctors. Even if there were abuses, it wouldn’t be reported.”
In his book, Sundaram is harshly critical of the western countries that finance Kagame’s brutal regime and turn a blind eye for his accumulating sins.
“I wrote this book so that people know when they (Rwandans) were standing up the world didn’t help them, largely because the world decided that Rwandans don’t need freedom, that they don’t need to speak up if they are getting money and their economy is improving. The world shouldn’t be in the position to decide that, Rwandans should be the ones to decide,” he explained.
The book ends with a 13-page appendix listing 60 of Rwandan journalists who have been harassed, persecuted, or killed by Kagame’s regime.
Sundaram hopes that his book will preserve some of their stories and put on record what these journalists stood up for, which is widely unspoken about in Rwanda.
“Much of this book is to call out the abusive use of power,” Sundaram said. “The purpose of writing this book is to remember these journalists who saw where the country is going and stood up against the government. My purposes is to ensure that what they stood for isn’t forgotten,” he added.
The book, released last month, is received with criticisms from Rwandans, especially from a man who identifies himself as Sundaram’s former student, who was featured very prominently in the book as “Moses,” a recruiter of journalism students for Sundaram’s journalism class. In his book review, published the same day as the book was released, he wrote that the book not only bears very little resemblance to the facts on the ground but were outright fictions and distortions.
Sundaram, however, states that his criticisms only confirms his message in the book.
“I can’t comment on the identities of anyone in my book or confirm any of the identities that were mentioned in the (review) article. But the piece to me reaffirms my message in this book that there is very little space in Rwanda for true narrative,” he said.
“The newspaper where the review was published is a pro-government newspaper. The editor of that newspaper is in my appendix because he once fled Rwanda himself after criticizing the government now he has returned as pro-government. I don’t even know if the journalist whose name is attached to the piece, wrote that piece. It may be written by the government,” he further explained.
When asked about his narrative approach in writing this book this he said:
“The book was written in this way very intentionally. The book is entirely about my experience, and this is because in a place like Rwanda, in a dictatorship, it is very difficult to verify what people tell you and it is very difficult to verify what you see. So I decided that the only thing I could be sure of is what I see and felt. So all the scenes in the book follow me and tell you what I saw, so that as a reader you can live in that same world, see what I saw and go on that journey.”
The Q&A session was moderated by Mythili Rao, a producer at WNYC and SAJA member.