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'Bad News' Chronicles The Loss Of Press Freedom In Rwanda

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'Bad News' Chronicles The Loss Of Press Freedom In Rwanda

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'Bad News' Chronicles The Loss Of Press Freedom In Rwanda

'Bad News' Chronicles The Loss Of Press Freedom In Rwanda

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NPR's Kelly McEvers talks with author Anjan Sundaram about his new book, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, which tells the story of dwindling press freedom in Rwanda.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

After a few years of reporting in the Congo, Anjan Sundaram wanted to go somewhere quiet and write a book. So he got a job teaching journalism in the country next door, Rwanda - a country that's come a long way since the genocide in 1994. But then he realized there was something more to write about, dwindling press freedoms and other freedoms in Rwanda. Sundaram's time there teaching that class is the subject of his new book, "Bad News: Last Journalists In A Dictatorship." He first noticed there was a problem when one of his journalism students asked him this.

ANJAN SUNDARAM: How did your countries get their freedom? Your countries were not always free. And how did you fight and win your freedom? And it was at that point that I realized that they were being repressed. One of my journalists had been beaten into a coma after bringing up the harassment of journalists in front of the president at a press conference. Another girl had been imprisoned after criticizing the government. And she was sick with HIV, and she had been dragged from room to room with prison officials screaming in her face as she could not rest. Journalists have been shot dead, imprisoned, forced to flee the country. And this whole world opened up to me, a world that had largely been unreported about Rwanda.

MCEVERS: You write a lot about this young journalist whose name is Gibson. Tell us about him. Tell us his story.

SUNDARAM: Gibson was a quiet man who sat mostly at the back of the classroom. He was incredibly intelligent, and I admired him as a journalist. He saw himself as somehow holding the government accountable. And he saw his fight for truth in Rwanda as hopefully leading to a better country. And Gibson, unfortunately, I watched him descend into a kind of madness and paranoia in which he became dysfunctional, almost. I tried to get him help. I tried to get a doctor to see him while he was in exile, but he refused. He believed that the doctor was going to kill him. And I saw that the government did not need to imprison, torture or kill this journalist. Through paranoia, through a series of betrayals and constant pressure, they brought him to a state where he could trust no one and nothing, and this destroyed him.

MCEVERS: Why would the government of Rwanda want to do that to someone?

SUNDARAM: The government of Rwanda is very sensitive about criticism. There's very much a sense in Rwanda of you're either with us or you're against us, and that's the government's position. So when they hear or read a critic, they immediately brand that person as being against the government.

MCEVERS: And this book isn't just about press freedom though, is it? It's also a pretty harsh indictment of Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame. And, you know, this is somebody who on the one hand is credited with coming in and ending the genocide in Rwanda, with helping grow the economy in Rwanda, with really just bringing the country back onto its feet again after the genocide in 1994. And yet, you claim in this book that because there is no press freedom and because the government doesn't want to be criticized, that he's basically a repressive dictator. I guess I want to ask you if that's fair?

SUNDARAM: Absolutely. I think his record has been consistent and the repression has been constant. And it - I think the repression shows in the fact that just 10 days, Kagame announced that he would stand for a third term as president, changing the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. There had previously been a two-term limit. And that demonstrates the utter lack of successors or alternatives in a country of 11 million people. And that is directly a result of Kagame's repression that has forced other people into exile. And what this has led to is a country in which the government's narrative is a sole voice that one can hear. And the world seems to accept almost anything that Kagame's government says as true.

MCEVERS: I was wondering if you could read a passage from page 165. It begins with the beauty.

SUNDARAM: Oh, sure. (Reading) The beauty was corrupt. The silence had been burst open, showing its menace. The fragility of the quietness was evident. It was possible to live here and love the calm eternally, but one would have to avoid knowing its center, avoid approaching it.

MCEVERS: Can you explain what you meant by that?

SUNDARAM: Yeah, Rwanda's a very calm place. There's very little crime on the streets. It's a wonderful place to write in, in fact. But the longer one stays in Rwanda, one realizes that that calm is not a benign calm. It's a calm that has been achieved through government repression. It's a calm that exists because Rwandans cannot and dare not speak up. And once one realizes this, once I realized that this calm was a direct result of the repression, it became quite frightening.

MCEVERS: So your program eventually was shut down.

SUNDARAM: Yes.

MCEVERS: You eventually left Rwanda. When did you leave?

SUNDARAM: I left in December, 2013. I had spent almost five years there.

MCEVERS: OK. After writing a book that is so critical of the Rwandan government and the Rwandan president, do you think you'll ever be able to go back to Rwanda?

SUNDARAM: No, I don't think I'll be able to go back until the regime changes, Kagame leaves power.

MCEVERS: That's Anjan Sundaram. He's the author of "Bad News: Last Journalists In A Dictatorship." It's out now. Thank you very much.

SUNDARAM: Thank you, Kelly.

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