Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship

Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship

by Anjan Sundaram


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In 2009, Anjan Sundaram began a journalist's training program in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Often held up as a beacon of progress and modernity in Central Africa, the regime of President Paul Kagame—which took over after the 1994 genocide ravaged Rwanda’s population—has been given billions of dollars in Western aid. And yet, during Sundaram’s time there, almost every reporter he instructed was arrested or forced to leave the country, caught in a tightening web of strict media control.

With Bad News, Sundaram offers an incredible firsthand look at the rise of dictatorship and the fall of free speech, one that’s important to understand not just for its implications in Rwanda, but for any country threatened by demands to adopt a single way of thinking.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101872154
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/15/2016
Pages: 210
Sales rank: 869,836
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

ANJAN SUNDARAM is the author of Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship and Stringer: A Reporter's Journey in the Congo. An award-winning journalist, he has reported from central Africa for the New York Times and the Associated Press. His writing has also appeared in GrantaThe Guardian, Observer, Foreign PolicyPolitico, Telegraph and The Washington Post. His war correspondence from the Central African Republic won a Frontline Club Award in 2015, and his reporting on Pygmy tribes in Congo's rainforests won a Reuters prize in 2006. His work has also been shortlisted for the Prix Bayeux and the Kurt Schork award. Stringer was a Royal African Society Book of the Year in 2014. Anjan graduated from Yale University.

Read an Excerpt


I felt swallowed by the wide road, the odd car hurtling uphill, the people hissing on the sidewalk bathed in sodium-vapor orange—a tick-tock had gone off in my mind since the bomb.

And were I not so consumed by these emotions I would have savored the immense surrounding pleasantness—the long baguette-like hills on the horizon, the silhouettes of clouds that hung low over our heads, the calm city that offered so much space—that tonight made me feel disoriented, smothered.

I searched for charred metal, the smell of burning rubber, any remains of the violence. A blue-uniformed policeman stood near the traffic circle, tall and rigid. I raised a hand to signal him, and spoke almost in a whisper: “Mwiriwe! Good evening! Was it here, the explosion?”

“The what?”

“The blast. I heard it from down the hill.”

“No, no, you are imagining things.” He spoke slowly, shaking his head.

“What is that man sweeping, though?”

“We always clean the roads.”

But I saw fragments shimmer, and I made to take out my camera.

His hand moved in front of my face. “No photos! No photos!”

“What’s the problem, if there was no explosion?”

“Listen carefully. Nothing happened here.” I instinctively stepped back.

Everybody in the neighborhood had heard it. I was told the ambulances had come—their sirens silent. But the road was now practically clean. Traffic was circulating, as it always did in Kigali, in orderly fashion. And the center of town, in this, the most densely populated country in mainland Africa, was nearly empty, as usual.

The discussion in my classroom two days later only heightened the sense of insecurity. Ten journalists arrived, and one by one took chairs. The mood was somber. The curtains fluttered at the back of the room. A stout young man said the blast had been caused by a grenade, thrown to destabilize the government.

The journalist had succeeded in taking photographs, but the police had recognized him and searched his bag. They had found the camera and taken the film—many journalists in my class still used old, outdated equipment—and warned him to wait for the official version of events, not to promote the enemy.

There was a murmur of discontent. The faces in the room were all marked—some by hunger, by fatigue, others with deep gashes. I heard a wooden knock pass the classroom door—it was the figure of Moses, hunched over his cane, stumbling over a leg that had been smashed in a torture chamber.

Moses, a senior journalist, had been responsible for summoning the students to our training program. He was so respected that not a single person had refused his invitation.

The students were newspapermen and -women, both owners of publications and employees. Most were in their thirties, though some were much older than I was. They had been specially chosen for our training program for their independence and ability—the idea was to bring together and professionalize Rwanda’s last free journalists, so they functioned as a skilled unit.

I had come to Rwanda to teach journalists how to identify, research and write news stories in this program. I had spent the last two years in America, but prior to that had worked in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo as a journalist for American news outlets. I was familiar with the sensitivities of news in this region, with its history of conflict, and was eager to return. I wanted to help these students be successful journalists.

Our program was funded by the United Kingdom and the European Union. The mandate was to help these journalists report mostly on government initiatives, such as efforts to make people wash their hands or see the doctor. So the program had been approved by the Rwandan government. It had existed for ten years already. But now it had become a place where these last journalists could work together.

The grenade in the city had come as a reminder of violence. It could have been thrown by armed dissidents. It could also have been an act of the government itself. Regardless, the regime would use it as justification for a new round of repression.

“I don’t know if we can survive it this time,” a student said.

“The government is making arrests. Secret prisons.”

“Many developed countries were once dictatorships. Tell us how they obtained their freedom.”

The stout young man said the last time he was beaten he had been blinded by his own blood gushing over his face. It was because he had mentioned the harassment of journalists at a press conference, in front of the president. His name was Jean-Bosco, and he ran a popular newspaper. He had been left in a coma for four days after that attack.

“But we have to keep speaking out,” a female student said. “That’s our only defense. The more we speak the more the government will be afraid to hurt us, along with the other activists. And we have to stay together, no matter what.”

The speaker was a short young woman with a red bow in her hair. She had just spent a year in prison after criticizing the government. She was sick with HIV, and had endured psychological and physical abuse while in prison. The prison officials had screamed in her face until she was tired, dragging her from room to room so she could not rest. Her name was Agnès.

The room had turned quiet.

Someone muttered: “How can we fight a violent state. Is there a way out for us?”

“America gives them weapons. Israel trains their secret service.”

It happened that we were approaching the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there was a series of commemorative writings about that period.

I read them one such article I had recently come upon. It was a reflection by a former Czech dissident, about his struggles to create a political opposition, and about how everyone had thought him ridiculous, his task impossible, until the dictatorship suddenly crumbled.

Agnès stared at the other journalists.

The Czech dissident spoke about his efforts to create news pamphlets and underground information networks—it was a battle with the dictatorship, a battle to keep alive the information that the regime destroyed, suppressed.

And I felt it was important that he described his pamphlets: for the journalists in that class were from the newspapers. The written word, in a dictatorship, offered possibilities that the radio, often used by dictators for propaganda, could not. The written word offered subversive possibilities in a dictatorship, offered some hope of freedom.

It has been so in every revolution, even in the Arab Spring, in today’s digital age. Writers are often at the forefront of revolutions. And it often is they who bear the brunt of the repression.

A radio broadcast requires equipment—an emitter, an antenna. The speaker on the radio might be recognized, and killed. The equipment can be destroyed, leaving the revolution mute.

But the written word belongs to no one. It has no source, no root that can be annihilated. It passes from hand to hand. It is destroyed; new words are written.

And now more people have begun to write, there are more sources. The written word can thus become something sacred to a people seeking freedom, to a revolution.

I collected the homework from the previous week—a report about a city hospital—said goodbye to the students, pulled the white cotton curtains over the windows of the classroom hall and began the walk to my house.

Moses hobbled beside me. It was another peaceful, cool evening. I felt the exhaustion of the day of teaching. I didn’t mind his slowness. A sympathetic taxi driver, Claude, saw us on the road and offered a lift. Moses, grateful, climbed into the beaten-up car.

At home, I poured myself a cup of tea and arranged a seat on the balcony. From here I looked over a large garden, and farther down into a green valley. This was without doubt the most beautiful city I had lived in.

The house belonged to the training program. It was commodious—four bedrooms—and had once been a diplomat’s residence. Unaccustomed to so much space, I occupied only the common areas and a bedroom whose door, the landlord had eagerly pointed out, was bulletproof.

I went through the homework. And there was a surprise. I had come to know my students well—but a certain Gibson, a quiet man in his thirties who always sat at the back of the room, had written a remarkable report. The ideas were organized logically, almost without error. He was not afraid to ask large questions. And the hospital was vivid in one’s mind: its doctors, the children.

Feeling slightly buoyed, I made for my bedroom. Briefly I turned on the radio. Still nothing about the explosion from the other night. No acknowledgment that it had happened; no sense that people in the country had been wounded or killed.

I did not have to wait long for the pressure to take effect on the journalists. The first notion I had was during a series of pronouncements by the president, Paul Kagame. I expected he would at some point address the explosion, which had been a surprise, even incredible. Rwanda had known an extraordinary calm over the last decade, a calm nearly as absolute as its genocide sixteen years before had been violent.

The president spoke slowly, his voice shrill, almost like a bird’s. He spoke about democracy in the country and the freedom that his people enjoyed, and how sad the coup d’états on the continent were, being the result of the absence of democracy. These were at his political meetings, press conferences, ceremonies in football stadiums and at the opening of a new factory. He was a tall, emaciated man, whose suit billowed over his body. He seemed innocuous, laughing at his own witticisms. But he could make or condemn people, villages and entire regions with words—it was almost as if his spoken word became reality, became the world. His was the voice of the nation; this was possible in the dictatorship, for mere speech to attain such power over living and dead things. So when he spoke there was great silence. His words were broadcast all over the country, with the regularity of a drumbeat; and on the windy hilltops and in homes, the people strained to listen.

The president had fled these same hills as a child. He was only three years old when, in 1960, an uprising against the Rwandan elite forced his family to flee to Ugandan refugee camps. So he began among the dispossessed. As a young man he fought with a Ugandan rebellion, becoming that country’s head of military intelligence and receiving training in America. In 1990, he commanded a force of Rwandans who had broken off from the Ugandan army and invaded Rwanda. The invasion set off a protracted conflict that the president called a war of “liberation” and culminated in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. The end of the genocide, in July 1994, was like a new birth for the president, as he took power in Rwanda.

Kagame’s control was at first something that needed to be divined. He was the vice president, the minister of defense. Others made the speeches and the state visits. But over time Kagame had done away with his front men. He had Rwanda’s previous president arrested for five years, and then pardoned and released him without explanation. The radios now broadcast Kagame’s slow speeches.

Some were permitted to ask questions at his events. “Your Excellency, why are so many countries eager to study our roads, hospitals and poverty-reduction programs? Is it because the country is developing so rapidly after the genocide?”

“Our country has learned a lot from its history,” the president said. He added that he was happy to share what had worked for Rwanda, and what had not, with anyone who was willing to learn.

The radio crackled, radiated these ideas of the authorities’ success. “Your Excellency, I was asking myself the other day why our government is so capable and professional, why we have so little corruption. Our business ratings are so good. The World Bank, the United Nations, the Americans and the British are praising us. But what is the cause for the praise? Yesterday I realized the answer. It is our leadership, Your Excellency. This is our secret.”

I recognized that last voice. It was Cato, one of my students. I felt something piercing in my stomach. He had decided to turn, and evidently join the president’s army of flatterers—a group officially called the Intore in Rwanda. By praising the president they incited fear and devotion in others. It was the easiest way to protect himself. Our class had lost a student, but I did not blame Cato; the situation was too precarious for all the journalists.

I found a frightened Gibson in his apartment. He asked me to close the door at once. “Have a seat.” His sofa was a wooden frame with soft square cushions, all covered in an old bedspread’s maroon cotton. Besides a small center table this sofa was the only piece of furniture in the living room. The apartment had whitewashed walls and was lit by a dim lamp. It had a single bedroom. Gibson lived in a shantytown on a slope of an eroded mud hill.

“I bought the sofa just a few days ago,” he said. “Do you like it?”

He was clearly proud of this somewhat pathetic acquisition. I said I would find him some new cloth. He became immensely pleased.

I had come with an idea to travel with Gibson. We were entering the season of memorials for the genocide, in which some eight hundred thousand people had been killed over a hundred days—a rate of murder unequaled even by the Nazis—and in great pain, for they were killed mostly with machetes, not guns. It had been an idea of mine since I had arrived in Rwanda, to pay homage to and remember those who had died from this human cruelty. But Gibson furiously shook his head. He said it would be too dangerous.

He was a man sized like a fourteen-year-old boy whose hands trembled lightly when he reached out to pick up things. Perhaps to hide this, he wore shirts with sleeves too long that extended beyond his wrists and up to his hands. The shirts were often white and hung over his small shoulders. And besides his best friend, his former roommate at the seminary, he was something of a loner, rarely mixing with the other journalists, who teased him for eating his fou-fou, a paste of manioc flour, with his fingers, in a way that tried to imitate the manner of city folk—it immediately gave him away as someone who came from the countryside.

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Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A gripping true story about the oppression of Rwandan journalists. A fascinating and informative story that helped open my eyes.