PAUL KAGAME CRUSHED RWANDA’S FREE PRESS
In Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, Anjan Sundaram recalls teaching journalists in Rwanda under the oppressive regime of President Paul Kagame, who last week announced he will stand for a third term, which could see him in power until 2034. In this extract, Sundaram describes the presidential election in 2010, a critical moment in the destruction of a free press
The election was a masterpiece of authority. The vote passed in an ambience of total serenity. No negative incidents were reported in the country: there were no protests, no complaints, no boycotts or demonstrations. The people queued up obediently. None of the opposing candidates claimed procedural irregularities. They were playing the theatre to perfection, and vowed they would accept the election results.
I called the presidential candidate I had met before the vote. He said the latest polls had been disappointing, but he claimed to be still hopeful for a win. The president indicated he would wait for the official results before making any pronouncements.
The country was teeming with visitors: foreign dignitaries, journalists, election observers. Reports from that day would be broadcast across the world. A careful decorum had to be maintained. The official observers were unanimous in their praise. The African Union and the Commonwealth lauded the government’s impeccable planning: how the booths had opened on time, how people had voluntarily lined up with their identity cards in the early morning, and how by 10am practically every citizen – the government claimed a 95% participation rate – had cast their ballot. By noon already the booths were empty.
“The world has important lessons to learn from Rwanda,” gushed a European Union official. Embassy observers hailed it as the most orderly vote they had witnessed in their careers.
The immense order of the ritual inspired awe. A young Spanish woman, caressing her long hair, introduced herself to me as a propagandist. Her job was to write up positive stories, in supplements to British newspapers, about governments seeking to improve their image on the world stage or seeking to attract foreign investment. But she had found no business in Rwanda because the foreign press was already so positive. “Journalists come to our country all the time,” a senior minister had told her. “And are stunned by how well we run it.”
The minister had shown her examples of such stories in eminent foreign publications. These were stories about the roads, the economic growth statistics, and how survivors of the genocide supported the president, with no mention of his forces’ massacres or his repression. Even the professional propagandist, who had worked in a dozen dictatorships before, was astonished.
At the counting of the votes that evening, I stood in a booth and watched the officials read: “Kagame Paul,” which later became “Kagame” and finally “Paul, Paul, Paul,” which was shorter, easier to say. Some of the girls marking tallies on the blackboard began to laugh. They seemed themselves astonished at the extent of the control.
I said to one of these girls: “The people are obedient.”
She nodded. “Yes, very obedient.” She was still smiling. “The president is strong today. Very strong.”
“What if someone disobeys him?”
“He will ask for forgiveness.”
A few of the ballots were improperly marked, and as though I was some guarantor of fairness the officials held a ballot up to me and asked: “Paul?” I nodded, and did not resist. I felt it was futile to resist against such force.
But later I would hear that in the provinces some had dared to dissent, that in parts of the country – known for having resisted orders to kill during the genocide – only 10% of the people had voted for the president. The mayors in those areas had panicked, worried they would lose their positions, and ensured that the ballots were altered. Now the question was whether they could make sure no one would pass on the truth to the president. The source of this information was someone in the election commission.
The results were exactly as Moses [a colleague and a survivor of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, who helped organise journalism classes] had predicted a month before. He had told me that it had been decided: the president would receive 93%, the next candidates 5%, and the remainder split between the others. The Intore dancers were summoned and put on a gigantic celebration in the stadium. Thousands attended. More Intore made the rounds in each neighbourhood. In the dark valley below my house I heard the screams – raw, brutal – until almost dawn.
If some websites and stories even slightly criticised the election, the Intore immediately logged comments ridiculing and denouncing the authors, and saying that their lives in Rwanda were happy. They wrote vehement letters to newspapers defending the president and his victory – and always gave their full names, so they could be seen for this loyalty. They knew the president’s office was watching.
By the end of the election the old guard of journalists had been done away with: killed, jailed, exiled or converted
The oppression was obvious to those with experience. A Russian UN worker I met three days after he arrived, when I asked what he thought of the country, said at once that it reminded him of the Soviet Union. He had noticed the tone of the newspapers. Another woman I met had grown up in Yugoslavia, under the dictator Tito, and just moved here. She had not known about the nature of the government – the international press was so positive. But after meeting some government officials she came home, sat down her British husband and said to him: “You have to be very careful what you say in this country.” Her husband had been oblivious. She told me it had been the way people spoke, their mannerisms, something about it all; she could sense the repression.
And having grown up in a dictatorship myself, in Dubai, I knew all too well what signs she was referring to; it was sometimes intangible; one felt it, but it caused a kind of terror; one felt weak.
By the end of the election the old guard of news journalists had been done away with: killed, imprisoned, exiled or, by fear, converted into Intore. There was a surge of youngsters who took their positions; we also started to get them in our class. A number of them were the children of reporters once immensely respected in the country – for having dared to speak out during the genocide or having survived imprisonment and torture by the previous government. Some of their parents had been killed for confronting the repression.
I recognised some of these young journalists from the president’s polling station. They were the new superstars. Rising to prominence easily, many had been offered jobs at popular radio stations. They were sent by their editors to gain skills at our programme. But they were difficult to teach: they did not want to listen, talked incessantly about themselves and their families, and they demanded respect from their interviewees. The talent and intellect were not there, but without even the spirit of the journalist there was little that could be done.
I felt we were wasting our time in the programme. But Moses said that he would try to find more deserving students. I felt sad for him and thought he was unable to or did not want to see the truth of our situation – that we were sinking. There was also the growing problem of money. With the dates approaching for the termination of our grants, we started to slow down the programme and think of ways to scale back. It seemed senseless to waste precious funds on undeserving students. I preferred to be dormant for a while. Moses said it would be a travesty if we ran out of money and had to close.
And then Moses was sent for by the president’s office. It happened while he was at the hospital, receiving treatment. His leg had started to hurt again – the leg the security services had tortured for hours by beating the sole of his foot with a wooden baton; it had permanently weakened his bones and he had started to take repeated absences from the programme because of it. The bureaucrats working for the president told him to report the next day and gave him no reason.
[In the] morning at the office we waited impatiently for news. The presidency was the central node of power in the country, the seat of almost every command that was sent out to the people. Like a fortress, hidden by trees, only the most powerful people entered its compound. It wasn’t without reason that they called in someone, particularly an elderly man. We feared the worst. But Moses returned. He was shaken. It wasn’t what we had imagined – he had not been threatened or beaten. An aide to the president had asked him to fill out a lengthy form with his family history. They were going to recruit Moses as a spy.
He was to be deployed against his family, some of whom had fled the country and were intellectuals in the Rwandan communities in Europe and America. His task would be to befriend these aunts, uncles, cousins and nephews and report on them to the government services.
It was possible that the authorities had caught on to his activities at our programme. Sending dissidents for work abroad was a way to neutralise them. The same had happened to General Kayumba, who had been made ambassador to India. But here they were inflicting a double punishment on Moses by asking him to turn on those who trusted him.
I had never seen the man in such a state. The leg still pained [him] intensely – the nerves were almost burning, he said – and he would make his way from one chair to another, clutching his calf, and the armrests. “I’m not sure,” he told me in a moment of respite. “If you take these jobs you are damned. They use you and then dispose of you. But if you don’t take the job you are damned. They see you as disloyal to the president.”
I sent Moses home in a taxi – Claude, the driver who sometimes offered us a free lift, was not far and came at once – so he could rest. He was moaning in the car. He would have to find some way out of his predicament.
I met Roger [a Rwandan journalist who had approached me for help], on the office premises. But we were in the garden, away from the main building. The white flowers on the guava tree were beginning to turn into fruit – tiny green bud-like structures, many dozens of them on a single stalk, covering it like pimples. The tree reminded me of Gibson [one of our students].
Roger said that the ministry officials were trying to talk him out of his reporting. But he had challenged them to take him to court. “They tell me the law is only for use on their enemies,” he said. “They want us to reach an amicable settlement. How can I do that? I have to insist on the law, so that any favour they grant me becomes a right for all our citizens. But they want to separate and isolate us, so we depend on them for favours, for our lives and for our freedom.”
The grenade attacks had continued. There was still no proof of who was responsible for the blasts. Roger said that the army had recently taken Kayumba’s brother, immobilised him, and placed him at one of the likely sites of a bombing. They had told him: “Tonight you will die because of your brother.”
I wanted to check on Gibson . He had returned to Rwanda and was living with his family, who did not want him at home, for fear that the government might come after them all. Gibson had stopped writing entirely. It was too dangerous; he felt it was better that he keep a low profile and stay at home as much as he could. We agreed that it was dangerous for us to meet. I felt artificially separated from him, that he was close by but painfully distant. He said he was going to turn to the family fields and work as a farmer. After this, he started a strange kind of communication with me. My phone would ring once but he would cut the line so it sounded like a beep. On the first occasion I immediately returned his call, but he did not answer. I grew worried.
The following evening he beeped me again. And these squeals of the telephone every couple of evenings, before I went to bed, became somehow reassuring. I would recognise his number and feel pleased. They became little signals of affection, a way for Gibson to communicate that he was surviving. I began to wait expectantly for these beeps from the young journalist who had renounced his work.
Roger called in a panic. The government had finally made good on its threats. His room had been broken into – he said the security services had come at night. All his information had been stolen. Fortunately, he had been away.
I went to his hotel at once. He was standing at the scene, breathing heavily, and alert. His figure and his muscles were taut, and his eyes darted between the hotel staff, me and his belongings. Unlike Gibson, this man seemed to want revenge; the government’s attack seemed to arouse his anger. The door to his room had a hole in it, punched through the wood next to the handle. The bed had been raised against a table and the mattress lifted. His laptop had not been taken, but he said that it had been hacked into – the hard-drive password had been reset – and all its contents copied. The hotel was asking him to pay for a new door.
Just days earlier he had published a story about the president firing a senior official. The official had posed with the president for a photo on a foreign state visit, and this photo was then printed the next day in several newspapers. The president was furious. He was sensitive about subordinates acting important. Roger had found a source in a high-ranking military meeting at which the president had vented his anger, and warned his staff never to become so pretentious as to be photographed with him, as this woman had. “In our families no one should think they are heroes.” He was the sole hero.
The story also revealed something more important but subtle. The genocide had been triggered in 1994 by the assassination of the previous president, whose plane had been shot down. Kagame had always denied attacking his enemy’s plane – he was responsible for ending the genocide, not for sparking it. Yet when the woman in the photograph had recently been arrested in Europe for being involved in the [attack] (she was released after intense diplomatic pressure), she had not expressed frustration with the Europeans for wrongly accusing her. She had started to behave as if the president owed her a favour. “Did I shoot the plane to be jailed?” she had asked the president months before the photo incident – and the president had narrated this at the private meeting. But he had not fired her then.
Roger said the security services had come after him for reporting this military meeting, which reached deep within the government to sources that had access to the president himself. I was impressed. But Roger was worried about something else. In the raid on his room he had lost sensitive information that he had been collecting.
Roger had discovered that the president had set off a campaign to transform the country [and] that [it] was not being reported in the press. There had been an order to remain silent about what was happening. The president had taken control of the narrative in public spaces. His power was now absolute. Roger wanted to reveal this programme.
It was necessary, he said, rapping on his broken door, that the people be able to discuss the actions of the government, and that the state not be able to act as it pleased, completely unchecked. Given the tragic history of this country this was doubly vital. Even if the state thought it was doing good, Roger insisted, that was perhaps the most dangerous kind of policy, and where the journalist was most necessary.
I felt it also made sense that Roger leave the capital, for his safety. He agreed, and suggested that he take me along so we could verify what was happening. Roger had various leads; there was apparently a place where officials had filled an entire school with people; it evoked scenes from the genocide. His only concern was whether we should travel together. A foreigner would attract attention. I told Roger I wanted to see the president’s programme.
He said we would go south. I hauled plastic covers over the computers the journalists had used in our classroom, to protect the machines from the dust. I pulled out the plugs from the wall sockets, as a precaution against sudden surges of current.
Moses was preoccupied, trying to dodge the security services and treating his leg. We were going to suspend the programme. I pulled curtains over all the windows and shut the office doors, leaving the rooms in darkness, pulling all the latches firmly and securing them with heavy brass locks. I felt the pain of a last haven for journalists in the country closing to them. This had at least been a place where they could come and talk. I looked in the classroom one last time, the long hall, the whiteboard, a few handouts that I had written up and printed stacked on the table, some scribbles of the students in the room’s corners, on the floor. I imagined their faces around the table. I drew the last curtain.
Extracted from Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, by Anjan Sundaram, published by Bloomsbury, £16.99 . Click here to order a copy for £13.59
1962 Rwanda becomes independent from Belgium and Hutu Grégoire Kayibanda becomes president, while fighting continues and thousands of Tutsi leave the country.
1990 The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a military movement established by Tutsi refugees in Uganda, invades Rwanda, thereby starting the Rwandan civil war.
1993 A peace accord between the RPF and Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana is signed after months of negotiation, yet there is continued unrest.
Apr 1994 Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira die when their plane is shot down near Kigali airport (it is never established who is responsible). Extremist Hutu militia and Rwanda’s military begin the organised killing of Tutsi, marking the start of the Rwandan genocide. An estimated 800,000 people are killed in 100 days.
July 1994 The RPF captures Kigali and declares a ceasefire, marking the end of the genocide. More than 2 million Rwandans, mostly Hutu, flee to neighbouring Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Nov 1994 The UN Security Council establishes the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to oversee prosecution of suspects involved in genocide, and announces its first indictments the following year.
1996 Repatriation from Zaire begins while the Rwandan government begins hearing cases for those involved in the genocide. By 2000 there would be over 100,000 suspects awaiting trial.
2000 Vice-president Paul Kagame is elected as Rwanda’s new president.
Feb 2007 8,000 prisoners accused of genocide are released from prison. Since 2003, an estimated 60,000 suspects have been freed to ease overcrowding.
2015 The ICTR holds its last trials, having convicted 93 people.
Dec 2015 More than 90% of Rwandan voters agree to modify the constitution by removing the presidential two-term limit, potentially allowing Kagame to rule until 2034.
1 Jan 2016 Kagame announces he will stand for a third term in 2017.
Criminal Paul Kagame