Book review: Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship

It is only 22 years since 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda, most of them hacked to death in an orgy of violence that focused the attention of the world’s media on the tiny, landlocked African nation.

Anjan Sundaram

Bloomsbury £9.99

With the mass bloodletting ended, a new story is now being presented to the world by Rwandan president Paul Kagame — a narrative widely accepted by Western politicians and journalists — of a land that has, almost miraculously, healed its wounds, rebuilt democracy, restored law and order, and transformed itself into one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.

But this is, according to Anjam Sundaram’s succinct book, a facade constructed by Kagame to conceal oppression and torture and maintain power in one of the continent’s most paranoid regimes. 

At the time when Sundaram’s account was being written, Rwanda was enacting a new law enabling its president to retain his position until 2034.

Sundaram’s book is, ostensibly, the story of his training school for journalists and how it functions under tyranny, of the struggles of eager young reporters trying to do their jobs in a world of censorship and self-censorship, where the streets are spotlessly clean, where millions of poverty-ridden people are enrolled in monthly ‘community service’ programmes, and where Kagame’s supporters knock on their neighbours’ doors to ensure they ‘understand the voting process’.

From the opening paragraphs, the author captures the nature of power in action. 

On hearing a bomb explode at a road junction in Kigali — probably planted by opponents of the president — he hurries to the scene, but by the time he gets there the debris is being cleaned up. He asks a policeman where exactly the explosion occurred. 

The response is: “What explosion?” As Sundaram reaches for his camera, the policeman, smiling, says menacingly: “No photos. Listen carefully, there was no explosion.” 

The neighbourhood where the attack took place is already going about its business; no one stops to look at the damage, the ambulances have come and gone in silence. Such are the quiet mechanics of fear under total tyranny.

President Kagame claims credit as the messiah who delivered Rwanda from genocide. 

He is feted by Western politicians as a statesman and nation-builder, despite evidence which suggests that when he marched south with his army to take power, his soldiers murdered women and children en masse. 

Today, this thin, bespectacled, and professorial character inspires a brand of fear reminiscent of Orwell’s Big Brother. 

On a trip into the countryside, Sundaram encounters a village where, for unexplained reasons, the citizens have been ordered to destroy their own homes by the Government, and they had done so.

There is an air of doomed futility running through Sundaram’s work. How can he teach journalistic integrity to his students when it could cost them their lives?

At one point he admits he wants them to avoid openly criticising the government, as he feels responsible for their safety.

Despite this, one of them, beaten by the police until blood runs down his face, is forced to flee the country, and, stateless and homeless, he later takes his own life. 

Another joins the ‘intore’ a group of journalists loyal to the president, who write stories praising the leader.

Sundaram refuses to blame him — in Kagame’s Rwanda, survival is an acceptable goal.

Stark and at times desolate, Sundaram has written a harrowing account of life in “a mirage of a country” where the all-seeing presence of President Kagame has managed not only to destroy free institutions and free speech, but ultimately free thought as well.


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