The story of an ambitious Rwandan journalist who challenged Paul Kagame’s leadership.
Standing on the porch of our office building, Gibson suddenly said that he wanted to start a magazine. For weeks, he had sat quietly at the back of the classroom during the training program I was running for journalists in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. But now the reporter seemed overcome with determination. He had just quit writing for Umuseso, Rwanda’s most important independent newspaper, after the government had threatened his colleagues and forced many of them to flee their country. Journalism can be deadly in Rwanda, and no one would have blamed Gibson for finding a new career after the threats.
But Gibson made it clear he wouldn’t sit idly by as Paul Kagame eroded what was left of the country’s free press. But nor would he take on the Rwandan president directly. The magazine he imagined would employ a clever approach: It would neither flatter Kagame’s government, which took power after the genocide nearly 22 years ago and gradually consolidated almost total control over society, nor publish overtly subversive news. Gibson wanted his magazine to fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of newspapers in Rwanda, where waves of repression have left only the most uncompromising media outlets still standing. He wanted to be a moderating force.
“The more they harass the press, the more aggressive the news gets, and the angrier the government becomes,” he said. “Perhaps we can break this negative cycle with some sense.”
The negative cycle Gibson described was the product of decades of repression. At least five journalists have disappeared or been murdered after criticizing Kagame’s government. More than 38 others have been imprisoned for years or fled Rwanda, fearing for their lives. A few years ago, one of my students was beaten into a coma after raising the issue of harassment of journalists at a news conference, in front of Kagame. Another one of my students, sick with HIV, spent a year in prison after criticizing the government. Prison officials had screamed in her face and dragged her from room to room so she could not rest.
This brutal treatment of the press has continued relentlessly over the years, so now few voices dare to oppose the regime. Civil society groups, media outlets, and human rights organizations that criticized the government were one by one shut down or hijacked by government loyalists. Dissent was choked. On Jan. 1, Kagame announced he would stand for a third term as president, violating earlier promises to respect the Rwandan Constitution’s previous two-term limit. In orderly fashion, and to little opposition, the constitution had been altered in December to allow Kagame to remain in power until 2034. The government cited the lack of protest as proof of overwhelming support for Kagame. In fact, it was proof that most dissenters had been crushed. The Rwandan press had all but rolled over for Kagame, reporting as fact the absurd claim that in a nation of 11 million, only 10 people had voiced opposition to a third term for the president.
Back on the office porch in 2010, Gibson asked what I thought of his magazine idea. I told him I wanted to help. Gibson said his best friend Simon (not his real name) would join in our efforts. They would call the publication New Horizons.
Gradually, over the course of several weeks, the magazine began to take shape. Gibson would remain in the classroom after our classes, and together with Simon, who was to lead business development — Gibson would be chief editor — we drafted a detailed business plan. The government required this for the magazine’s registration. One had to show enough funds for computers, tables, and chairs; an office, the government said, had also to look like an office. The regulations were meant to dissuade journalists, and make our work difficult. We joked among ourselves that the government would soon also mandate the color of journalists’ socks. I offered Gibson the use of our office facilities at the journalist training center, which had ample chairs and spare computers when the other students were not around.
It was a fulfilling period of long work hours with good spirit. We grew excited by the possibilities the magazine offered. We felt that it would almost certainly succeed with the public and might even turn a small profit in its first months, if we were lucky.
The main story in the first issue was about malnutrition. The government position was that Rwanda had sufficient food and that the president’s policies had banished hunger. Gibson had avoided confronting the official line. Without ever stating that Rwanda had a malnutrition problem and that children in even the capital — the beacon of the government’s message of its success to the world — were dying from the condition, Gibson simply provided information to mothers that would help them feed their children.
Fundamental needs of the population, like food, housing, and health, were especially sensitive topics. They were essential to the discourse that the government was doing good for its people. The government might point out problems that arose, but for a citizen to do the same, to say without prior signal, for example, that people were lacking food, was inherently dangerous. It was seen as diminishing the government’s authority. Even posing the question could be seen as a form of dissent. This was why one always added that the government was doing everything necessary. Or to be safe, one avoided stating the problem at all.
What then was the truth about how people were faring? The president declared to the world that he was creating progress: He was growing the country’s economy, reducing poverty, reducing hunger. But he suppressed verification of these claims. For instance, when the World Food Programme announced a famine outbreak in Rwanda in 2006, affecting hundreds of thousands of people, the government denied it. To this day, there was officially no famine. A subsequent World Bank research team studying the country’s progress was forced to destroy the data it had collected when it became clear that the study was willing to contradict the official narrative of development. Subsequent research teams, at the government’s invitation, have found that the economy is growing, poverty is declining, and people are better nourished. Researchers investigating police corruption were expelled from the country; Rwanda was declared among the least corrupt. A magical nation was thus created.
Gibson had realized that operating in such an environment required writing around the official narratives. In this way he would address the immediate concerns of the people, but ensure his own protection. One afternoon he came to the office with news we had been waiting for: The Health and Information ministries had both approved New Horizons. We had been optimistic about approval because his publication was not critical of the authorities. It was a good sign. Gibson’s pimpled, cratered face showed both satisfaction and a kind of melancholy. He would soon be able to publish.
Gibson had already charted out the themes for the next four issues. He had lined up journalists and had spent his own money, from the little he had saved up, to pay them for their reporting.
We went to the office’s garden that evening with some bottles of beer. They were almost the size of wine bottles, the standard in Rwanda. Once Gibson had made sure no one was watching, he drank his beer through a straw. It was the traditional way. In villages men would sit in a circle and pass around a flask of banana beer — a practice the government had outlawed. I think Gibson quietly enjoyed his small subversion.
“Maybe New Horizons will become a way for journalists to open up spaces to speak,” Gibson told me. “We can get the message out while worrying less about the government attacking us. People in our country are dying needlessly. If we tell them how to cure themselves, they will survive. We just have to be patient and help a few of them at a time.”
But it didn’t take long for the optimism of that moment to fade. The magazine had received approval from all the relevant authorities, and the first issue of New Horizons, of which Gibson had printed a small sample run, was receiving exceptional praise. Strangers were writing in by SMS to say that they adored the articles and were already using the information. We were on the cusp of the launch. But a government media regulator — reporting directly to the president — kept refusing to grant the final go-ahead for the publication.
Gibson was never told that he was being refused registration, but each time he went to the regulator — then called the Media High Council — officials requested a new form, a new certificate from some government arm, a new letter stating his intentions. It began a cycle of debilitating, Kafkaesque confrontations with officials. Gibson was made to repeat information he had already furnished, but in different form, on new sheets of paper; he was made to provide irrelevant information; he had to obtain testimony from the authorities in his home village that he had been on “good behavior,” had attended community work sessions, had not been outside at irregular hours, and had not received odd visitors. That the man had no criminal record did not matter, of course — the people close to the president needed to ascertain that he was not associated with any rumors of suspicious activity.
How to defend himself against rumor? The threat was formless. In a dictatorship it wasn’t the facts that determined one’s life; it was the claims, the whispers, feelings. There was no escape from the cloud of rumor that trailed invisibly behind everyone. Still, Gibson ran from authority to authority, trying to please officials, trying to provide every proof that they asked for. He was beside himself, fatigued, overcome with worry that his project would be crushed.
One afternoon, Simon arrived in the office while Gibson and I were working. Trembling, he sat down. He had been called that morning to the parking lot of a nearby hotel. The callers had said they were from a ministry dealing with one of the authorizations. But when he arrived he found plainclothesmen carrying revolvers — government men — who snatched his phone and scrolled down to see whom he had been calling. The men said they wanted to talk to Gibson. Simon told us he had said his friend was traveling — that he did not know where. And after the interrogation he had run first to a gas station, to make sure he was not being followed, and had then come to the office. He had taken a great risk by coming there; someone might have seen him.
Gibson was immediately tense. He let forth a flurry of questions: Why him? Did the men say what he had done? He had written nothing overly critical, he said — nothing, in any case, compared with the other journalists at Umuseso, his old employer. He could only think of his reports in Umuseso about government trials to prosecute killers from the genocide. Gibson had mentioned suspects close to the authorities who had not been charged, implying that the government was not looking too closely at the records of its friends. But he had written these articles many months before, and his recent reporting had been benign, as were his plans for New Horizons. Was even his malnutrition story now unacceptable? He became quiet and told me, once Simon had left, that this was not normal.
“I am very worried,” he said.
The two friends agreed that they should no longer talk or meet. Gibson had to move out of his apartment at once. But where could he go?
The editor of Umuseso had just fled Rwanda. The threat had become too pronounced: The government had begun a widespread witch hunt for journalists from the newspaper, and there were rumors that it was about to be shut down. So Gibson was not alone in his danger. But these journalists each faced the government individually; they were already isolated.
We did not talk about what would happen to New Horizons, and Gibson said he was trying not to panic. The journalist had a plan. It was out of the question to stay in the capital after what had happened, so he would leave for a little while. Perhaps the tension would die down; perhaps the government had something personal against the Umuseso editor; perhaps the government would find a distraction and leave Gibson alone. He would hide himself and watch from a distance. He didn’t tell me where he was going. He suggested it so naturally that I thought it must have been a plan he had formulated long ago, in case of such a situation.
The next day he was gone. I wondered whether Gibson would be safe. He was pitting himself against a system that was incredibly powerful. The state was highly ordered and controlled. Every piece of the country was organized into administrative units benignly called “villages.” Each village, or umudugudu, contained about 100 families. Even the capital was but an agglomeration of such villages. Each village had its head, its security officer, and its “journalist” or informer, all of whom had to approve of one’s behavior if one wanted something from the government — a passport, for example.
The system’s power was shown in seemingly innocuous happenings: Slippers were worn overnight by masses of villagers following a government order. Plastic bags were suddenly eradicated from the corners of the country. To achieve such control the government had relocated thousands of people in the countryside to new “villages.” And there was no privacy. Officials and security agents in the villages kept track of visitors and those traveling. Permission was required from local authorities if someone was to stay overnight. Hotels every day sent records with the names of visitors to the security services, using Rwanda’s network of well-paved roads.
Where was Gibson going to hide? The whole country was, in effect, watching him. In other dictatorships, dissidents were able to move between cities, wear disguises, and change identities. Anonymity gave them the possibility of freedom. Rwanda’s umudugudu system made this impossible.
I imagined Gibson on the run, from city to city, hotel to hotel. He called occasionally, never for more than a few minutes, and often just to tell me he was alright. I think it reassured him to talk to me, as he ran without destination. He knew that the government could use his friends or family — he needed to escape his former life and everything he knew. It was thus a kind of illusion, trying to run away. Though he was courageous to try.
After two weeks of gradually closing in, the government finally caught up. Gibson called me to relate how it had happened. There was a knock on his hotel-room door one night.
He asked who it was.
We had always assumed that it would be the secret service or the police who would come for him. But, no, the government had used someone who knew him well.
“Your friend, James.” I felt let down: James was another of my students in the journalism training program. He was a government radio employee known for his independence, and he had spoken passionately in the classroom in favor of freedom. I had held some hope for him. Now I felt slightly broken. Perhaps he had been offered a promotion, or a loan to build a house. Although rewards were often unnecessary — it was reward enough to be seen by the government as loyal. I had lost two journalists at once.
Gibson finally opened the door and asked what James was doing there. They were in a city in the far south, a university center with many students and lecturers and guesthouses — it could not be a coincidence that James had arrived at his room.
But the government man gave no explanation. “Just traveling in the area,” he said. “Do you want to get a beer?”
Gibson knew he could not refuse the offer. And from the bar on the first floor of the hotel, where they were seated, James ostentatiously made a telephone call. He said in a loud voice, “Hello! It’s me. Yes, I am with him. There is no problem.” I received a text message that evening from Gibson. “My life is in danger. I think I may die tonight.”
Gibson’s time was clearly limited — the police were using the country’s journalists against one another. It was an insidious form of repression: to turn against you the things and people you trusted, so that you had to fear your own people.
In Kagame’s dictatorship one gained one’s freedom not by defending the liberty of others but by working to diminish it; for each person you turned in you earned more space. Even if such freedom could not last, even if you could lose by betrayal what had been gained by betrayal, it was a kind of freedom: a negative freedom. People’s innate desire to be free thus provided essential sustenance to repression, dictatorship.
James decided to take a room at Gibson’s hotel. That night Gibson paid for his accommodation, but left discreetly to sleep in another lodging. Early the following morning he boarded a bus for Kigali. He had nowhere to go, so I invited him to stay at the four-bedroom house provided for me by the training program.
He looked disheveled when he arrived. It was the toll of being on the run for two weeks. He had not eaten in several days, he said. And he was tired.
On the first day he just slept. The following day he came out for a couple of hours, before going back to bed. I did not know if he actually slept or if he was in some kind of trance-like state. He stepped out of his room looking ragged, in a strange condition, before again returning, without saying a word.
The following morning he emerged from his room in a rush — as if suddenly woken — and said that we had to make a plan. I too thought he should move. The question of when the police might arrive made me worry — the station was just around the corner from my house. And we were only two or three blocks from the president’s office. It was one of the safest parts of the city, but also one of the most observed.
Everything seemed to be pushing Gibson to abandon his country. It was not an easy decision, or an obvious one. But the incidents, one after the other, had shown him that he could not stay, that his country was no longer safe for him. Everything he was connected to was now dangerous. He had been ripped out of society, of his world. He was stateless, homeless, being pursued. There were no more sanctuaries against the isolation and fear.
One evening he went back to his old apartment to collect a few of his things. I waited nervously at home. He found his landlady in his room — and she began to scream at him, to say that she had thrown him out, that he was useless, what was he still doing here. She left saying she was going to fetch the police, that this was her duty. Gibson hurriedly packed some belongings and departed before she could return. He did not lock the apartment door. This — her sudden hysteria — was a signal of all that threatened.
That night in the house he sat on his bed, feet on the ground, praying. To his right, on a bedside table, was a small porcelain figurine of the Virgin Mary and her child. It was one of the things he had salvaged from his apartment. Next to his foot was a little suitcase on wheels, Chinese-made, on top of which lay his frayed toothbrush. He opened his eyes. They were deep red. He did not speak. I offered him some rice.
What would become of New Horizons, he asked, into which he had put so much work? He looked distressed, and shaken by the episode with the landlady. The police were now undoubtedly on his trail and knew he was in Kigali. It was a hopeless position to be in, the individual pitted against the state; I felt his utter helplessness.
Anjan Sundaram is the author of Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, from which this essay is adapted.
Photo credit: MICHELLE SIBILONI/AFP/Getty Images