Sundaram's title, "Bad News" is appropriately titled to describe what reporting the news in Rwanda is not about. There, under President Kegame, only half the news is written. Bad news, news that in any way ever so slightly criticizes or shows the dictator in a negative way, is dealt with harshly and in a myriad number of ways.
This is the main reason for the author's training program for journalists in Rwanda: to reconnect the country, covered with a dictatorial shroud of secrecy, with reality.
Although the program did not start out this way – journalists were to be trained in fundamental journalistic principles covering relatively benign stories with government approval – Sundaram makes it clear early on in the book that the mantra of the journalist is always the search for truth, However uncomfortable and dangerous it may be. We know it in his description of the trainees: suffering from "hunger and fatigue," some "with deep gashes."
The repression in Rwanda, difficult to endure for everyone except those who wield power in a dictatorship, was particularly trying for one of the student journalists, "a certain Gibson." Gibson is a fascinating study of a gifted and intelligent though "quiet" man. The author shows us how this thoughtful and introspective man was affected by the threats the repression had on him. He is an important figure in the story. The author weaves the story of Gibson's struggles and fears with stories of his fellow students. He is there near the end of the book still the author's "favorite student," a testament to the best of journalism in the face of the omnipresence and apparent indestructibility of the Rwandan state apparatus.
And there are surprises in Sundaram's edition as well. The reader will be shocked to learn about a journalist named Roger, his conversations in confidence with Sandaram, and the revelations that would ensue.
Anjan has us see the extent to which the government controls the minds of Rwandans by the remark made by one of his journalism students speaking on behalf of the class, "We have freedom in Rwanda." These words we wonder at in amazement from a member of the critical press, a member who should be the first person to arrive at the truth based on the facts.
Rwanda is a country in denial. First, in an orchestrated denial from the top, the government. Second, in a denial by capitulation of the population toward news that the government doesn't want printed.
One of the recurring themes in "Bad News" is the thoroughness of the repression in Rwanda. One of the most striking examples of government control is how children can report parents to the government and parents children, even have them killed to please the president and the state. Or how the author's immediate circle of friends, "almost every prominent journalist had either fled or been arrested."
It is interesting to note there is little sharing with others, even a family member being pursued by the government. The family will seek to be rid of the dissident for fear they will be exposed.
A dictatorship dehumanizes people. It makes them harm themselves. Everything they have belongs to the dictator. If they are told to give up what they have or even destroy it they will do it gladly to please the dictator. On a larger scale dictatorships are like local cults we read about or see on television. Or like the man who said, "I did it." What did this man and all of the able bodied men and women do in the village to harm themselves and their families? The answer will be one the reader and the author at the time "would never have expected."
There is irony in the book. Sundaram tells us of the beauty of the city of Kigali and the unspeakable violence of the genocide in 1994, and today the apparent calm of the country and the relentless pursuit of dissidents.
Anjon Sundaram has given us a glimpse of life under a dictatorship and how power and tyranny emerged in Rwanda out of the catastrophe of genocide. I highly recommend the book.
One of the most telling aspects of the repression in Rwanda is how the international community sings the praises of the government. All that is left to defend the truth is a small group of journalists inside Rwanda fighting the secrecy of repression not with their words but with their lives.
When Sandarum's story is told, the reader becomes appreciative of the uproar, even in America, of excessive intrusiveness of surveillance. Gibson says, "We hide from the government, which wants to see us all the time." Thoughts immediately turn to increased video surveillance in America since the age of terrorism was ratcheted up with the attacks of 11/11. And in recent years, Americans have learned that the National Security Agency might be listening to a citizen's most confidential telephone calls. So our citizens fight two fears: fear of governmental control over their thoughts and motivations, and fear of a nebulous external threat of international terrorism disrupting their lives.