This is a blog dedicated to a personal interpretation of political news of the day. I attempt to be as knowledgeable as possible before commenting and committing my thoughts to a day's communication.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Hush, Hush, Rwanda

"Very quickly my students began to tell me that they weren't free. They wanted to be free. They asked me how."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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 trade-off."
Anjan Sundarani, author, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship
Author Anjan Sundaram found the experience of trying to report the news in Rwanda "chilling."
Author Anjan Sundaram found the experience of trying to report the news in Rwanda "chilling" -- Freddy Bikumbi / Random House 

India-born Mr. Sundarani, a Yale graduate raised in Dubai, took a teaching job in Kigali in 2009. He felt he could manage the job in the capital of Rwanda, and it could fund his writing of his first book, Stringer: A Reporter's Journey in the Congo. Rwanda had been the scene of a spectacular failure in United Nations peacekeeping, when the ruling Hutus were stirred to murderous frenzy by their leaders and embarked on a wholesale killing spree of the ethnic Tutsis in 1994.

Photographs of some of the 800,000 victims of the 1994 genocide. The 20th anniversary of the massacres was marked in 2014. (Reuters/Noor Khamis)
Photographs of some of the 800,000 victims of the 1994 genocide. The 20th anniversary of the massacres was marked in 2014. (Reuters/Noor Khamis)

It is now a Tutsi government that holds the power in Rwanda, and reconciliation between the two large ethnic groups is the order of the day, as far as can be determined from the propaganda that issues from government sources, augmented by the country's news media. Rwanda's President Paul Kagame was the victorious commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front for most of the Civil War which ended in the slaughter of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

He and his government present to the international community the facade of a nation in harmony with its parts. A free democracy, whereas the truth appears more elusive; the government rules with the authority of tyranny and fear. More than typical of most African countries. The Hutu militias who were banished from Rwanda crossed borders into neighbouring countries where they pursued their ongoing killing sprees targeting minority Tutsi populations there and unsettling countries like the DRC.

But in Rwanda, while the pretense of government protection and civility creates the impression that the country has completely recovered from its tribal and ethnic violence, encouraging international aid and investment, the truth is it is a dictatorship which challenges the agenda of foreign investigation by imprisonment on the basis of charges of "threatening state security". Mr. Sundaram was intimidated, observed and identified as a subversive because he realized that what he saw and experienced ran counter to the official account.

Attempting to report the reality of occurrences, he ran up against roadblocks of government silence that events had actually occurred. The official line was that of national unity and progress and nothing would dissuade it from that path. While attempting to teach journalism he learned through his students how they were beaten and imprisoned for their temerity in reporting on subjects known to be taboo. One of his best students was threatened and fled into exile.

Rwanda celebrates itself as a country that succeeded in moving beyond 1994's ethnic slaughter. Foreign investment helped it to prosper. Newspapers, radio stations, opposition politicians and businessmen portrayed a normal country. His students guiding him, however, Mr. Sundaram discovered what had not been obvious. "We the poor, we are like the insects, scared of the lights. We hide from the government, which wants to see us all the time", one student confided to him.

Eventually all his students melted away, lost to threats, to harassment, to beatings and arrests for the crime of threatening state security. Some went into exile, but not before publicly condemning the government, and being forced to flee. One person that Mr. Sundaram had recruited for his journalism program was murdered. The population had become compliant, through fear and frustration; there were no avenues of dissent or criticism left open to them.

In his book there is a description of a village he had visited. Where people lived literally out in the open, under trees with the most fundamental of shelters, their farm animals alongside them. They had been informed by local authorities that the traditional thatched-roof huts they were living in were backward, and Rwanda had become a progressive, forward-looking country. Not knowing how to respond, the villagers destroyed their homes.

Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index lists the worst offenders of press freedom under attack: Somalia, Iran, Sudan, Vietnam, China, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea. Russia, of course, and Turkey are in that illustrious company as well. Rwanda ranked 161st out of the total number of 180 last year, just as it had the year before.

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