Bad news (book review)

Anjan Sundaram delivers a poignant and timely book, a highly readable mix between a (very) long form journalistic essay and a foreign correspondent memoir (he actually worked as a media trainer).
Bad News-Last Journalists in a Dictatorship’ is his expose of the Rwandan regime’s suppression of free media and journalistic freedoms with a significant personal, sometimes deadly toll for a generation of young journalists.

Running a small media training project with a core of independent journalists, Sundaram features stories and events that occurred during his stay in Kigali between 2009 and 2013.
President Paul Kagame’s tight grip on the society and his power to control the country are palpable throughout the book and the quest of a small group of independent journalists to engage critically with the circumstances (i.e. doing their job) represents broader struggles of living and working in an authoritarian society.

The lives of others – Journalism in post-genocide Rwanda

This was how dictators destroyed countries, to gain power: they destroyed the capacity for independent speech, then independent institutions-and ultimately independent thought itself. I was bearing witness to this process of destruction (p.27).
Sundaram follows many of his course participants and it quickly becomes clear how tight the surveillance networks are in the relatively small country of about 10 million people.
The attempt to write or say something, to express yourself, turned into an intricate exercise. Distrust or unhappiness might show in a word, a pause, a twitch. One had always to feel that one was being watched (pp.30-31).
And throughout the book he manages to point out the mounting psychological, financial and professional toll such an environment takes on journalists, especially Gibson, his favorite student.

A 20th century surveillance state in the 21st century

Probably because of my own (West-)German heritage and many debates and discussions about post-war Germany, the GDR and the reunification, the different paths that Sundaram describes for his participants remind me of how many people dealt with the socialist authoritarianism in the countries of the Eastern bloc: From exile to precarious underground work, to accommodation with the communication apparatus of the regime, journalists choose different paths-and Sundaram remains open-minded rather than quickly judging decisions that may not only impact individuals, but entire families or villages.

When more and more students leave the course, Sundaram is faced with the many powerful ways in which the regime interferes with its citizens:

Perhaps (the journalist) has been offered a promotion, or a loan to build a house. Though rewards were often unnecessary-it was reward enough to be seen by the government as loyal (p.41).
And very often there are only lose-lose scenarios as one of his friends with covert ties to he security apparatus explains:
“If you take these jobs (working as an informant) you are damned. They use you and they dispose of you. But if you don’t take the job you are damned. They see you as disloyal to the president” (p.121).
Bad news is always an important and powerful reminder that talking about ‘the end of history’ and expanding democratic values is easier than dealing with some of the difficult realities under which local organizations, activists or journalists live and work in developing countries.

Trapped in the political economy of the development discourse
Rwanda’s development after the genocide is generally seen as a success story of reconciliation, economic growth and poverty reduction and Sundaram hints at the power of being a ‘donor darling’ and referred to as a success story by Western donors and the global aid industry.
“He runs one of the most effective governments in Africa. I’m proud to be giving him money” (p.55) a Western ambassador is quoted at a garden party where Sundaram confronts him with the realities of freedom of speech. “We are for freedom of speech. We will influence the government in the right direction” (p.55) the ambassador concludes the exchange. Needless to say that Sundaram is not a fan of big and expensive donor-driven workshops and conferences that achieve very little other than generating revenue for the Kigali hospitality industry...

At the same time Paul Kagame uses his charisma to mingle with global leaders, politicians and development celebrities, thereby globalizing his discourse of success:

The more the president’s statements went unchallenged by Rwandan journalists and citizens, the more the world believed in their truth. The governments propaganda was being made into a successful export (p.74).
At the same time, his vision of a ‘modern’ Rwanda is also enforced through domestic initiatives that may not have been implemented with the full knowledge of the international development community:
The man said the local authorities had come to the village and told the people to destroy their roofs. It was an order.
He had not asked the authorities where his family would move once he had destroyed his roof. And the government had not given him instructions.
She started to say (…) that the president was visionary for destroying these roofs, and that it was a sign of progress coming to Rwanda. (…) It must have required a humiliation of some sort to say those words (pp.131-132).
But for obvious reasons I would have liked to read more about how the Kagame regime and international development actors agree and disagree. Other than the journalists we meet very few critical actors, local NGOs, international organizations, activists etc. and I wonder how fully and easily they have bought into the official discourse.

No ICT4D-disruptive-social-enterprise model to the rescue

But there can be no doubt that one of the core strengths of the book from a media development and development communication aspect is the focus on people-and the individuals’ quest to make critical journalism happen under very adverse conditions.
There are no Twitter-hashtags, no online campaigns or underground blogs that offer easy digital support; there is also no quick-fix entrepreneurial model that would make critical print journalism economically feasible. Sundaram’s media training is a reminder of some of the ‘old school’ foundations of empowerment that are still vital in the 21st century: Providing safe spaces, nurturing talent at the individual level, providing small financial assistance – and encouraging a group of talented, courageous, critical social changers to pursue their passion in a difficult environment.

In the end, the oppressive regime is still winning-and often by not using blunt, physical violence. When Sundaram concludes his book with reflections on how he lost his student Gibson who is now living in Ugandan exile in a paranoid state of mind, we are reminded how the exercise of power in authoritarian regimes can be quite subtle, yet with devastating consequences:

My favorite student, whom I had cared about so much, was self-destructing. We had lost this intelligent man. The government had not needed to kill him; they had just made him useless, ruined his mind, with the paranoia, by turning on him those he loved and trusted most, so that he had become a victim of that double world he had showed me, in the lights (p.175).
Bad news is a timely addition to current debates academics, students and practitioners have on the importance of various media formats and their contributions to democratic expression and critical scrutiny of those in power. Equally important, in an age where open data, digital storytelling and various Internet tools are all too easily heralded as the ‘future’ of accountability, small, old-fashioned media development projects are still important.

A free press, good quality journalism and engaged and informed citizens are always facing open and subtle forms of suppression from those in power. Anjan Sundaram stands up for the last journalists in the Rwandan dictatorship, reminding us that we should have learned more lessons from the 20th century to counter oppression and support media freedom and civic engagement rather than just believing glossy statistics and prepared speeches on growth and poverty reduction. 

Sundaram, Anjan: Bad news: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship. ISBN 978-1-4088-6646-7, 192 pages, GBP 12.99, Bloomsbury Circus, London, 2016.


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