Earlier this year I recorded a podcast with the award-winning journalist Anjan Sundaram. We discussed his wonderful book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, an account of the extinction of press freedom in Rwanda.
What is fascinating about the book is its exploration of how a dictatorship comes into being. Sundaram witnesses and describes the slow erosion of press freedom and the different human reactions to external pressure. Some journalists quit and do something else; some become propagandists; some flee to exile; and some keep reporting until they are imprisoned or murdered. I think it should be a set-text for journalism and media studies courses.
Bad News also presents some real world case studies that demonstrate the importance of freedom of expression. Sundaram watches as wrong-headed policies are pursued by the Government and the people and no-one feels they can speak out against the mistakes.
Here was a case of people doing harm to themselves on government orders, because there was no voice in society saying, ‘This is wrong, don’t tear down your own roofs until the government has built a replacement house, it’s common sense.’ There was a pastor in the East who did speak up, and he was promptly arrested for ‘threatening national security’.
The echoes, the parallels with the genocide in Rwanda were impossible to ignore.
When debating free speech, I am often asked how I can possibly be against European laws that criminalise holocaust denial. Since reading Bad News, I’ve been pointing to the Rwandan example by way of an answer, that it is generally not a good idea to enshrine a particular version of history in law.
In the podcast, Anjan explains how President Kagame is able to leverage the genocide for his own political ends, presenting an official narrative that places him as the saviour of the country. Alternative accounts of the genocide are suppressed. In this case, challenging the official history of the events of 1994 could be seen as a dissident act. It would be extremely perilous if genocide denial laws were enacted in Rwanda as they have in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere in Europe.
I created this podcast as a Proof of Concept. Anjan showed gentlemanly patience as I worked out how to use some new equipment and tested some recording methods. I would love to record more discussions like this, either for English PEN or just as a personal project. I am really proud with this first attempt, but would welcome feedback on the production, aesthetics, interview style and anything else. I would also happily take suggestions for interviewees.
The music in the podcast is by Ziggy Campbell.