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A word with Anjan Sundaram

Politics
Culture
Rwanda
India
Anjan Sundaram

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by people who live deeply and express that through their work, whether literature, music or film. When I feel an authenticity of emotional content in someone’s work, it moves me a great deal.

What issues are you politically passionate about?

Inequality. The free press. The ability of people to express themselves. I see self-expression as fundamental to who we are as human beings.

You’ve written about DR Congo before, and now Rwanda. What attracts you to these places?

I’m attracted to places where there’s great change and turmoil happening and where people cannot speak up, where people’s situations are relatively unreported. Congo had a war with very little reporting. In Rwanda, it’s outwardly stable; on the surface, you only see the narrative about the government’s success since the 1994 genocide, with ethnic reconciliation and economic growth, but the journalists I trained introduced me to a world where people were unable to speak up. There’s a strong undercurrent of repression.

Is Rwanda living under a dictatorship?

Absolutely. President Paul Kagame is extremely good at creating a façade. The repression of the free press and the silencing of any voices of dissent could very quickly turn into something far more violent and dangerous. The underlying forces that led to the genocide haven’t changed.

Could the situation blow up again?

I’d hesitate to say another genocide, but it’s clear that a true transfer of power from Kagame to anyone else is likely to be violent, given that he has destroyed every institution in the country that could smooth that transition. There’s no independent judiciary, no independent parliament, no independent press. Power resides in the hands of one man.

How difficult was it to run a journalist training programme in the country?

Over time it became very hard to operate or to receive any funding. Donors told us that the government saw any financing of the press as a threat to its rule. They made a choice to appease the government and have a seat at the table on the government’s terms, so they removed funding. It led to the demise of the programme. There are very few forums open now for journalism in Rwanda and very few journalists exercising their profession with any degree of freedom.

What are the dangers of there being no free press?

It’s extremely dangerous. Genocide is one example. During the genocide, there were people who stood up to the government and said: ‘This genocide is wrong. We should not be killing the Tutsis. The government’s policies are flawed.’ Those people were killed, imprisoned or exiled. Gradually, society was silenced until there was only one voice that people could hear: the government’s.

Is journalism worth risking your life for?

I’ve often wondered. But there’s something about the abuse of power that gets to me. When I see power being abused, there’s something that makes me want to expose it, to investigate it, to understand it. To turn my back on that: I would regret it. It’s a very personal decision. Each of us has to draw the line where we think it should be drawn.

Where do you feel most at home?

Probably in India – when I arrive there, I feel a sense of home. I haven’t lived in India much, so it’s an abstract, dissociative sense of home. But I travel a lot and I like to make my home wherever I am. That’s something that fuels my work. When I move to a place, I try to live as deeply and richly as I can in that place. I try to integrate into that society, to write and report from there.

Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship by Anjan Sundaram is published by Bloomsbury.

Graeme Green is a journalist, photographer, travel writer and editor. graemegreen.org