Bad News, Anjan Sundaram

“We have an oral culture,” he said. “People get nervous when you write. Writing also leaves proof. If you don’t write notes the world can be made different. People’s memories can always be questioned, molded.”

Bad News

Holy hell, this book. While I may have gripes with the author here and there, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of journalism in Rwanda. Sundaram opens the book with a story of traveling down a road in Kigali and hearing an explosion. When he goes to investigate, he witnesses a clean-up in progress, shards of glass being swept from the street by officials. He asks one of them if this is where the explosion happened.

“The what?”

“The blast. I heard it down the hill.”

“No, no, you are imagining things.” He spoke slowly, shaking his head.

“What is that man sweeping, though?”

“We always clean the roads. . . . Listen carefully. Nothing happened here.”

If there is a constant through all my reading about oppressive regimes, it’s the substitution of the ruling regime’s preferred version of reality for the actual lived experience of the people. The dictatorship lives or dies by its ability to convince people of (or at least convince them to agree to) the worldview and history that it chooses to espouse.

For instance, in President Kagame’s version of events, his Tutsi army did not invade and destabilize the Democratic Republic of Congo. It committed no massacres, in the DRC or in Rwanda. How could it have? How could the nation’s savior, the liberating force that ended the genocide, have done this? Why would you ever repeat this kind of genocidal propaganda? Were you involved in the genocide, come to think of it? Is that why you’re saying these things?

Sundaram came to Rwanda as part of a program to train the few remaining free Rwandan journalists in how to find, research, and report on news stories in their country. From this vantage point, he witnessed the near-total breakdown of what little free journalism remained in a country where the president’s men intimidated, imprisoned, and even murdered any journalist who dared to stray from Kagame’s story of Rwandan peace, freedom, and prosperity.

It’s a chilling book, notwithstanding Sundaram’s occasional assumption that he Knows Best what these folks should be doing and choosing. Maybe my next Not a Dumb American post will be the Rwanda edition.

  • Alley

    Well now the phrase “I reject your reality and substitute my own” sounds a lot more threatening than I previously considered it.

    • Hahahaha, did it ever not sound threatening? It’s always sounded hella threatening to me.

      • Alley

        I always hear it in that guy from Mythbuster’s voice (cos they used to run it during the promos all the time) and he is not a threatening guy. So pretty much I always thought of it as nerds going “No, I don’t like what you’re saying. I will instead pretend something else.”

  • JeanPing

    Ohhh, I’m going to need to read this one, aren’t I?

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Scary. Yay for nonfiction reading!

  • It certainly does sound chilling.

  • Aarti

    Wow. I can’t even imagine how frightening that must be to deal with. Intimidating is certainly the right word. I would be shaking like crazy. Every day.

    • Yes! The author talks about one of the journalists seeming to lose his mind, stop making sense, and I can completely see why. The doubt and paranoia sound like they’d be brutal.

  • Wow, indeed! This sounds depressing, but also really important. Great review!

    • Thanks! It was a fascinating book and definitely made me want to read more about the country’s history.

  • What gripes did you have with the book? This one sounds like one I would love to read. Journalism in oppressive regimes is always fascinating, inspiring, and scary to read about.

    • Yeah, it was definitely a fascinating read. Occasionally, the author could be a little superior about his students. Like, these kids don’t know how to live their own lives, they need to listen to what *I* think is right. But it’s a minor thing!

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