Tuesday, 19 April 2016

SumRando Speaks: Author Anjan Sundaram on Censorship in Rwanda

Rwanda, Anjan Sundaram, censorship, SumRando Cybersecurity, VPN, secure messenger
Last Monday, the United Nations acknowledged the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda, which served for many as an opportunity to recognize the strides the country has made in the 22 years since 800,000 individuals, largely Tutsis, were systematically killed in less than 100 days.

President of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly Mogens Lykketoft spoke at the commemorative ceremony to praise the accomplishments of today’s Rwanda: “For despite the trauma it suffered, Rwanda is an example of successful post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation. Rwanda teaches the world that it is absolutely possible to rebuild a country torn by war and violence. To reunite after deep division. To reconcile profound differences. And above all, to build a dynamic society and embark on a major period of recovery and development.”

Looking for a more in-depth account of modern Rwanda, SumRando spoke with Anjan Sundaram, author of Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship. Sundaram arrived in Rwanda in 2009 looking for a “quiet place” to write his first book, Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo, but left in 2013 with a story quite unlike Lykketoft’s:

I was offered to teach a class of print journalists in Rwanda in a training program funded by the European Union and the British government and I thought this was a great way to engage with society, contribute to society and to work with some of my local colleagues. What I quickly found was that…these print Rwandan journalists were operating in a very repressive environment and often [in] doing their journalism, risking their lives.

I taught a class of 12 journalists, none of whom are practicing anymore. One of my students had been beaten into a coma for bringing up the harassment of the press in front of the president at a conference; a colleague of mine was shot dead on the same day he criticized the Rwandan president; 2 students of mine were sent to prison for many years for insulting the president; others have either fled the country or joined the presidential propaganda team out of fear. Rwandan journalists operate in an environment that is far more dangerous and at times fatal.
While in Rwanda, Sundaram focused on equipping his students with the professional journalism skills that would keep them alive. Although he never actively criticized the government, he did offer his home as temporary refuge for a student fleeing the country. However, as the repression grew, Sundaram’s students were increasingly resistant to the very skills that could help them.

I was teaching the students with the hope that one day they would find themselves in a free environment and be able to practice their profession freely, but as time went on and the government became more and more repressive, it became harder for me to reach the students with my course material. I was accused by one of my students for being pro-government because I was teaching them how to report on ordinary health issues and the student felt that the real issues in the country were political and to their credit, they were political, but I had to be very careful about what I helped them report on and I wanted them to stay safe and report more professionally.

As journalists in the country grew angrier because of the repression, their stories became more vitriolic and more explicitly political. To be fair to them, there had been systematic abuses of power and these were journalists who had seen their societies…people had been killed, people had disappeared and they had a deep sense of what the government was doing. Many of them had also lived in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994. The genocide in ‘94 was conducted in an environment which was very repressed. Any media that spoke up against the genocide was silenced. People were killed until gradually there was only one voice in society: the government’s. So when Rwandan journalists today see newspapers and media being silenced and the government’s voice growing increasingly dominant, they are aware of the incredible risk that that entails.

Is the current government opposition to free speech at all justified given that the media played such a strong role in inciting the genocide in 1994?

The media that incited the genocide in 1994 was not a free media; it was a media controlled by the government. In fact, media voices that opposed the genocide were silenced by the government. It wasn’t a free media that incited the genocide and fomented it and gave it voice, it was government controlled propaganda. In Rwanda today, the situation is very similar. There are no independent voices. Voices that criticize the government—even when they benefit the people—those voices are silenced.

Many Rwandan journalists and colleagues of mine as well are aware of the enormous risks that the silent media portends for Rwanda and they’re worried about the situation in Rwanda today. They’re of the opinion and I share this opinion that a freer media, a multiplicity of voices would protect society against extreme views taking hold. When independent voices are silenced and the government is the only voice that can speak, it becomes incredibly easy for very extreme views to take hold and that is a risk that Rwanda faces today.

Are there parallels that can be drawn between Rwanda today and post-Nazi Germany? Are there lessons to be learned?

Very different histories and very different post-genocide contexts as well, but there is certainly something to be said for the trauma of genocide. Genocide happened only 22 years ago in Rwanda and there is still a great deal of trauma that has resulted from that genocide, and I think that was similar in fact in post-Holocaust Germany as well. But I think unfortunately and with Western financing, Rwanda has gone down a path of more repression and new dictatorship, whereas in Germany, even though it took some time, there had been a gradual increase of institutions that held the executive power, that checked the powers of the executive in Germany.

What happened during the Holocaust and also during the genocide in Rwanda was a very powerful executive that took millions of people’s lives. So, the more checks and balances that there are, the better it will be for citizens and I think there are some lessons for Rwanda in how Europe has now since World War II—with the exception of what happened in the Balkans—Western Europe has largely lived peacefully for many decades now. While there are some parallels and there’s something to learn from in terms of dealing with trauma, I think the situation’s also quite distinct.

What hope do you have for Rwanda’s future?

There are many Rwandans in Rwanda today who are silent and Rwandans who are in exile abroad who do believe in a Rwanda of stronger institutions, whether of checks and balances on presidential authority. President Paul Kagame’s power is nearly absolute today, but were those Rwandan intellectuals and politicians to engage, I think that could help create a Rwanda in which there are stronger institutions and in which violence in the future is less likely.

Unfortunately, the Rwandan government today is not accountable to its own people. The only bodies it’s accountable to are Western governments who finance about half of Rwanda’s budget. I think it would take a certain act of courage on the part of these foreign donors who finance Kagame to say to the Rwandan president that he needs to sit down and dialogue with these Rwandan intellectuals and politicians and he needs to begin to build some of those institutions that have been progressively destroyed, leaving Rwanda today in which more power is concentrated in the president. I do think that there are Rwandan people who understand modern society, understand the post-genocide context and understand the constraints and the special solutions that may be needed in Rwanda today. Unfortunately, they’ve been silenced, but were they to engage, I think that would build a better Rwandan society and improve the lives of people and more importantly, reduce the risk of future violence.

The world stood by largely when the genocide happened in 1994 in Rwanda. The world did not intervene and unfortunately the world has remained silent over the last 22 years as dozens of Rwandan intellectuals, politicians, journalists, civil society activists, scholars have one by one either been killed, imprisoned, tortured or forced to flee the country and live in exile.

That has sent a very clear message to Rwandans today that should they stand up to the Rwandan government, they will not be helped, and so there are a few brave Rwandans who are still trying and there will continue to be such figures, but without any guarantee of support or protection, it is increasingly unlikely that Rwandans themselves will be the instigators of that change. The world needs to at least provide some kind of guarantee for their fundamental human rights—their basic safety and security—to create an environment in which Rwandans themselves can start that dialogue. Most Rwandans who have tried, and there have been many, have been silenced.

What is the number one misconception that people hold about Rwanda today that you would like to change?

I’m not here really to change anybody’s views or anything. My purpose in writing my book was to put on the record some of the work of these brave Rwandan journalists who stood up to the government, a very powerful government, because they thought the government was heading in a direction that was dangerous for the country. Because they stood up to the government, they suffered. Many of them, their names are not spoken in Rwanda today because these journalists and activists are seen as enemies of the state by the government. My purpose was to put on the record some of the brave work that they did and make sure that their work was not forgotten.

When I first arrived in Rwanda, I thought this was a peaceful, harmonious country and then over time I realized that the peace was not from harmony. It was a silence that had come about from fear. And that was something that was very shocking for me to realize. And I think there is a whole set of misconceptions about Rwanda today and about what it’s like to live there because people are not free to speak, and so the government speaks for them, foreigners speak for them. They are told what to say and they know what they can say safely. So there’s a great deal in fact to understand in Rwanda and in many modern dictatorships that look peaceful, that look calm, that look modern on the outside, but conceal a very terrifying world that citizens live in.

This month's 22nd anniversary of the Rwandan genocide was largely a day of praise for Rwanda's "peaceful reconstruction." Let's look ahead to 2017's International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda as a time to acknowledge the hostility that will continue to lurk beneath the surface until the world chooses to see it.

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