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badnews

At the end of Anjan Sundaram’s book “Bad News: Last Journalists In a Dictatorship”, there is a list of 60 journalists “who faced difficulties” (or, in simple words, were punished) for criticizing the government in Rwanda. One was left in a coma after a knife attack. Another disappeared. And another was shot dead on the street. In recent years, Rwanda has mostly been lauded for an economic miracle after a brutal genocide. For example, the country recorded an economic growth rate of 35.2% in 1995, the year following the genocide’s end. For most of this century, it has had average growth rates of 8%, an impressive figure when you consider recessions and stagnations that have wracked the world economy. But that miracle has come at a cost to press freedom in this tiny landlocked African nation.

In its rankings this year, Reporter Sans Frontieres listed the country 159th (out of a total of 180) in press freedom. Although Rwanda’s constitution guarantees freedom of information and expression, several statutes within the document place restrictions. For example, Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, recently cited the defamation statute, which can lead to five years of imprisonment or a hefty fine. The “Divisionism” statute has a similar punishment for oral or written pieces that could cause conflict with similar provisions and an even bigger fine. Sundaram’s is the first book to shine a light on this topic. He had earlier written about his stint in Rwanda’s strife-torn neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that book had received widespread praise from critics.

Bad News is about Sundaram’s tenure as a teacher at a journalism initiative in Rwanda. The initiative was funded by the European Union and United Kingdom. His job there was to teach students to think critically about news and pronouncements by government agencies.

That news mostly consists of reports about impressive growth rates and development goals. But the country’s economic development and peace are facades for a sinister dictatorship that constantly monitors and controls citizens, writes Sundaram. According to him, Paul Kagame, the general who came to power following the 1994 genocide, is an authoritarian ruler who suppresses dissent at every turn and encourages Pensee Unique – a singular manner of speech and thought – in citizens.

Sundaram illustrates his thesis of a suppressed citizenry through personal experience. His students are murdered, imprisoned, and forced to flee the country after they publish stories that questioned the government. Others, who curried government favor and flattered officials, receive privileged access to officials and become rich. Sundaram also has a personal experience of sorts when he is betrayed by an informant, who turns out to be agent of the state.

His reporting trips also reveal versions of stories that are different from the government-approved ones. For example, news of a bomb explosion sends him hurrying towards the site. However, upon arrival, he is greeted by a clean and quiet street. But he can still make out the remains of blood and human flesh on a street cleaner’s mop. He is also stopped by a security officer, when he attempts to photograph the scene. At an event to remember the genocide, a senior police official in uniform asks him not to “look and write” on his pad.

According to Sundaram, the Rwandan government has planted a “Secret Service” among its citizens. Its members pose as ordinary citizens to discern thoughts on a variety of matters, including freedom of expression, from individuals suspected of harboring dissent against the government. Sundaram himself falls into this trap, when Roger, who claims to run a blog critical of the government, befriends him. Roger turns out to be a specialist in infiltrating enemy camps and is employed by the government’s counterintelligence unit. “It is the most demanding section – he has been trained to kill his own people, even his friends, to prove his loyalty to the enemy,” Moses, a journalist in Sundaram’s program, informs him.    

A Vivid Portrait That Needs Some Work

“A vivid portrait of a country at an extraordinary and dangerous place in history, Bad News is a brilliant, urgent parable on freedom of expression and what happens when that power is taken away,” claims the book’s jacket. That claim is partly true.

Sundaram, who graduated in Mathematics from Yale University but took up journalism instead, writes with a convert’s zeal for his profession. There is an evident honesty in his story. As I mentioned earlier, Sundaram has inserted himself into the story as a character. The book, thus, reads as a mystery of sorts. He is not afraid to share his emotional state, after encountering setbacks. His observations and vivid details add color to the story. More importantly, his recorded conversations and encounters with locals and embassy officials are interesting and reveal a true journalist’s inquiring mind.

But additional detail would have made the book better.

Absolute truth is the goal of journalism. But the process to arrive at that truth, as any reporter will tell you, is messy. History is involved; as is bargaining with the subjects of a story. Much of that is missing in Sundaram’s account of Rwanda. Sundaram hears about government misdeeds from students and friends. But he does not verify the hearsay. Some context about Rwanda’s history and reinvention would have helped readers who are unfamiliar with the country understand the importance of such news. It would have, also, helped them see why Kagame’s regime is bad for press freedom.

But, too often, he does not seem to verify or validate these stories. For example, he writes about “secret contraceptions” being conducted by the government. This could have provided an interesting opportunity to validate his thesis. We already know that the average Rwandan woman’s fertility rate has dropped from 6.2 children per woman in 1992 to 2 children in 2014. What is the role of secret contraception practices in achieving this goal? Similarly, he writes about Roger informing him about a surge in enrollment for the government army. Again, Rwanda is an actor in a war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has escalated its presence there.What relation does this development have in the increase in enrollment numbers?

Then there are the loose strands. Too often, the narrative follows multiple threads but fails to connect them together. For example, things become worse for Gibson,  a journalist who is Sundaram’s student, quite suddenly. One moment, he has secured government approvals and a couple of advertisements for his new magazine. In the next page, however, he is on the run to Uganda. The story, while linear, does not provide important background about why Gibson was being chased by the government. Gibson keeps reappearing throughout the book. But we don’t know what happens to him by the end of the book. There are other characters in the book, whose stories fail to reach a conclusion. 

That said, the book does a good job of poking a hole into the positive spin of news stories coming out of Rwanda. For that achievement itself, Sundaram’s book is worth reading.