Plenty of Bad News for African journalists today

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Dr Tom Odhiambo

It seems that wherever one looks in Africa today, journalists are besieged. Indeed, it appears as if the African journalist is living in more dangerous times than ever before.

Journalists are being killed, jailed, assaulted, threatened or simply stopped from doing their work in many African countries. In many of the cases where journalists are forced not to report, they are likely to be reporting “bad news”, in the eyes of those in power or wielders of authority. This is the case that Anjan Sundaram aptly captures in his book, “Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship” (Doubleday, 2016). This book is based on Anjan’s life in Rwanda where he had been running a programme to train and improve the skills of local journalists.

There is no doubt that this book will make the Rwandese government and its supporters angry. They will dismiss it as another diatribe by a Westerner with tinted eyes and preset notions about Africa. They will point out that the writer doesn’t give the “other” side of the story; there are hardly voices from the government side or from those who think that the Rwandan government is doing well. Critics of Bad News will argue – and some have already done so in some local media – that Anjan’s views on the socio-political realities in Rwanda don’t consider the complexities of a society that trying to re-member itself after the tragedy of 1994. One would argue that Anjan knew and understands that his book would provoke such sharp reactions.

However, Bad News is a book that is worth reading for many reasons. First, Anjan tells a very complicated story in a very accessible language and style. The sketches of everyday life in Rwanda are sometimes so realistic that the reader feels as if they are right there in Kigali or whatever part of the country that the writer is talking about. Anjan focuses on the lives and experiences of his students. He speaks about the difficulties of teaching prospective and working journalists the principles of good journalism. He writes about the joys of seeing some of the journalists practice what they have learned in the classroom. He talks of the tragedies of journalists working in an environment that is not only seriously restrictive because of government regulations but also in which the state can “control” news without appearing to do so.

In other words, Bad News is part the story of Anjan’s observations about the decline in media freedom in Rwanda, about the corrosive nature of media regulations, about the personal consequences that journalists suffer in such an environment; but most importantly, it is part the story of the dangers of being a journalist today. It is in the latter sense that this book should be read. There is no doubt that the Rwanda context of Bad News is important. Indeed, Anjan points out that the Rwandan state is overbearing in its relationship with journalists. He points out the various methods that the Rwandan state uses to control or influence news in and outside the country. He notes that the Rwandan state uses a most sophisticated public relations formula to win friends and cast aspersions on its enemies, which in many ways is all fine.

‘Seduce or kill’

But Anjan also shows how the same state stifles dissent either by seducing journalists who may have contrary opinion to its side or simply intimidating them or scaring them into exile. In the extreme, Anjan argues, journalists with anti-state views are assaulted or killed. Indeed, Anjan has an appendix listing 60 “journalists who have faced difficulties after criticising the government of Rwanda”.

Some of these people have “disappeared”, been “left in coma”, been “arrested and imprisoned for more than a decade without trial after working for an editor who criticised the Rwandan government”, “physically assaulted by soldiers after criticising the Rwandan government”, “shot dead on the street after criticising the government of Rwanda”, “died from a treatable disease after the Rwandan government prohibited him from travelling abroad to seek necessary medical treatment”, etc. With such suffering, violence and deaths, it is not surprising that some of the journalists concerned changed sides to become supporters of or even propagandists for the state.

The charges Anjan lays against the government of Rwanda aren’t unique. In fact, many African governments can be accused of harassing, exiling, assaulting, maiming, jailing or killing journalists. Often it is because journalists report what the state wouldn’t wish to be widely known. In the case of Rwanda, Anjan argues, the state would love to be associated with stories of peace, security, reconstruction, development and stability. It is perfectly understandable why the government of Rwanda would to be seen to have delivered peace and prosperity to the Rwandese after several years of instability and in the aftermath of the horror of 1994. For, Rwanda is a country that is still faced with the spectre of invasion by the remnants of the government that fled into exile after 1994. The political tensions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi are obvious sources of insecurity in Rwanda.

Add to this mix the difficulties of reconciling the country after 1994 and whatever the Rwandan government says, you have a government that would demand rather than merely expect a conforming media.

But isn’t it anachronistic to expect absolute conformity by the population in a world that is saturated by all sorts of media platforms? It is easy to shut down newspapers, magazines, radio stations, TV stations or even Internet sites. But it is difficult to get the population to worship rulers without questioning some of their actions. Anjan shows that indeed the order, security and seeming civility of Kigali and some parts of Rwanda can indeed give a first time visitor a picture of a democratic and progressive society. He further demonstrates that the grip that the state has on the society would allow little opposition to its ideology, policy and acts. However, he underlines the tensions that naturally such a system produces.

In the case of Rwanda, it means that those who oppose the system internally are seen as traitors. They get expelled from the party, sacked from the government and they and their relatives or even friends are persecuted or prosecuted. Some of them will choose to continue challenging the government silently, others will seek to oppose the state from a distance, yet others choose to be overtly defiant, often leading to their deaths.

Anjan relates such cases in Bad News. And this ‘bad news’, one would say, is both to the government and the citizenry, not just the journalists. For instance, although the Rwandan government has carefully built the image of a society that is glued together by its desire for progress, presented in local and international media by various claims of communal cooperation (umuganda), widespread use of ICT, clean towns, a high incidence of women in politics, intolerance for corruption etc, Anjan concludes that the core of this seductive edifice is rotten. He writes, “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 the centre, avoid approaching it.”

More than an institutional clash

What such ominous words mean for journalists and Africans is that even though the tragedy of the state of media in Rwanda may appear as if it is merely a clash between one institution and another, the real tragedy is to be found in the villages and slums across the society where millions of citizens live hemmed in by vicious terror, violence, suffering, abandonment, death, etc, as well as the façade of progress that one sees in the building sprouting all over cities on the continent.

Writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi;Tom.odhiambo@uonbi.ac.ke

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