Saturday, May 13, 2017

What happens to a nation when free press, dissent are crashed - #Rwanda @PaulKagame

First published by Canada's National Post on January 22, 2016.  The National Post is one of Canada's pioneer media houses. 
TORONTO — Anjan Sundaram was at a football stadium in Kigali, waiting for President Paul Kagame to address a rally of supporters bused in by the hundreds, when a police officer approached and demanded to know why he was taking notes.
An Indian-born journalist who taught basic reporting skills to Rwandans through a European-funded aid program, he was only putting pen to paper as any member of his profession would have done, but the officer found it suspicious.
“I have seen you,” the policeman said. “Looking and writing, looking and writing.”
“Was it wrong to?”
“You can’t look and write,” he said. “It is not allowed.”
The uniformed cop said plainclothes officers had been observing him and he should stop, for his own good. His notes created a record. They were subversive because they might conflict with the official account the state would put forth.
“It was chilling,” Sundaram said in an interview this week during a stop in Toronto to promote his latest book, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, about the more than four years he spent teaching journalism to Rwandans as their government choked the life out of the press.
He had a similar experience following a grenade attack in the capital. Although he had heard it and went to the scene, the government would not confirm it and it went unreported. There were things you could not talk about because they were at odds with the official narrative of national unity and progress.
A Yale graduate raised in Dubai, Sundaram said he was only looking for a quiet place to write his first book, Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo, when he landed in Kigali in 2009. He took on the teaching job to get by. He was oblivious to what was going on around him until his students opened his eyes.
“Very quickly my students began to tell me that they weren’t free. They wanted to be free. They asked me how.” They told him about being beaten and imprisoned for reporting on taboo subjects. After one of his best students fled the country under threat, he began to explore the subtle repression at work.
The Kigali that Sundaram discovered had the appearance of an advancing nation, one that had moved past the ethnic bloodletting of 1994, when an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed. There were newspapers and radio stations, opposition politicians and business suits. Foreign donors lined up to write cheques.
“Kigali is clean, Kigali is quiet. There are hotels, nice hotels, fancy hotels. And I think this is many people’s experience of the place,” Sundaram said. But once his eyes adjusted, he began to see that “the quiet in the country is not because the country is calm and harmonious but because people aren’t speaking, because dissent has been crushed.”
With his students as his guides, Sundaram learned to find the truth in what he did not see, in what people did not say. A brightly lit road, for example, seemed a measure of progress — until he realized nobody used it. “We the poor, we are like the insects, scared of the lights,” a student told him. “We hide from the government, which wants to see us all the time.”
The quiet in the country is not because the country is calm and harmonious but because people aren’t speaking, because dissent has been crushed
One by one, he lost his students to threats, harassment, beatings and arrests for such crimes as “threatening state security.” Some were co-opted by the regime while others practiced self-censorship, fled into exile or committed journalistic suicide with over-the-top condemnations of the government. A mentor he recruited for his program was murdered.
Without the platform of a free press, public debate died. There was no way to air grievances about the government, challenge its dictates or bring issues to its attention. The people sunk into a state of compliance, knowing there was nothing they could say or do.
Sundaram writes about visiting a village where the people lived under trees, in simple shelters and among farm animals. The local authorities had told them the thatched-roof huts in which they had lived were too backwards for progressive Rwanda. The villagers had immediately destroyed their own homes.
“I wasn’t aware of the full impact of the destruction of a free press, of a silent media, until I saw things like that, when people were doing themselves harm on government orders because they knew it was futile to speak up. Who were they going to speak up to? There was no one to talk to. No one was going to report it even if people knew,” he said.
It’s no secret that press freedom is under attack in many places around the world. The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index lists the worst offenders: Somalia, Iran, Sudan, Vietnam, China, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and, scraping the bottom, Eritrea.
Rwanda ranked 161st out of 180 last year, the same position it held when Sundaram left in 2013. And it has continued. A 2014 BBC documentary that investigated allegations Kagame was involved in the incident that sparked the genocide was condemned by Rwanda for “inciting hatred and divisionism.” Rwanda responded by suspending the BBC radio service in that country.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Fred Muvunyi, the chair of the Rwanda Media Commission who had spoken against the government on the BBC dispute, fled the country in May after being warned of a plan to have him killed.
In Rwanda, Sundaram sees a universal question. Kagame, a former rebel commander who has effectively ruled since the genocide — first as vice president and defence minister and since 2000 as president — has leashed the press as a safeguard against ethnic violence, and foreign donors have largely supported him.
“I think so many people are oblivious to the role of a free press and to how their lives are shaped by the access to information and the freedom with which information circulates in places like Canada and America,” Sundaram said.
“I want to ask, are we willing to give up free speech or trade away free speech for a certain quantity of economic growth, for money? Because that’s what we’re doing in places like Rwanda. We’re supporting a government and we’re saying, for Rwandans this is an acceptable tradeoff.”

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