“Lonzen, are you safe?” is how a concerned friend greeted me last week after reading this column. I said I was safe and asked why. A while later I was alerted to a reader’s comment that implored others to “have a minute silence for the writer who by now has received 100 sms and phone calls from the city authorities, sacked by his boss and probably wrote his last article in TNT and any other newspaper. Amen.”
I tried to think of anything I could have said that was out of the ordinary. I rarely read my own writing but this time I went back to it, reread. I still failed to see anything that could have ignited the wrath of the authorities.
The more I thought the more I started to put things into perspective. And to calm my nerves. For one thing, there are many contradictions that we live with in our society that we do not take the time to try to iron out. As a result, we live with a discomfort that is largely our own creation. Let me explain with some examples.
One of the local TV stations recently hosted a show. The topic was media freedom and patriotism. It was a lively exchange for most of its duration. But what caught my attention was the time when one of the panellists insisted that there was absolutely no freedom of expression in Rwanda and that any utterance that is counter to the official narrative is considered subversive and unpatriotic. In fact, the speaker claimed, very bad things can happen to anyone who says anything negative about the government.
Another, also generally well informed, was engaged in a discussion on Twitter where he also said that the space for expression closes every year; that Rwanda was a more open society a decade ago than it is today. He also predicted that next year there would be mass arrests and incarceration. But he did not say on what basis he thinks that will be the case.
In both cases, the speakers were speaking from inside Rwanda – in Kigali. Now, the situation for free expression can’t be so bad, as they claim it is, and yet go on to put their lives in grave danger by involving themselves in ‘subversive’ activities of free expression.
Most people agree that Rwanda is very frugal when it comes to public resources and that it uses them in the public interest. Yet, there’s a belief that the government is able to splurge resources intruding on people’s lives instead of investing more of it in improving their lives.
We believe that we have a competent intelligence system. Yet, we also believe that its officers run amok in bars and restaurants listening in on our conversations; that they are effective at collecting information but that they are unable to determine what about it constitutes a security threat, which is why they are ready to harass us at the sound of anything that is not pro-government.
Now, does any of this happen? Yes. But the question is when and how. If we agree that we have a sensible government, we cannot at the same time say that it is keen on doing insensible things. It is one or the other.
A sensible government is able to distinguish between issues of national interest, non-negotiable in pursuit, and those that are peripheral in nature in which it’s quite flexible in their attainment. Precisely, anyone who poses any threat to the core interests of the state is subject to harassment, at a minimum. However, much more can be done to that person should it be determined that he or she is also in possession of the ability to carry-out that threat.
However, there are those who are simply a nuisance to the state. These pose a threat to the state’s peripheral interests. At best, theirs is a matter of disagreement for which no one should be harassed, let alone having to end up in jail. Moreover, it would be a waste of government resources to go after them; only those states that have lost their sense of direction (like Burundi today) make such rookie mistakes.
It is not to say, however, that competent states are immune to error. For instance, an overzealous agent, in a rush to please their superior, will make a category error by misreading the nature of the threat, such as would have been the case had the two gentlemen on TV and Twitter been arrested and jailed.
Does this explain the level of self-censorship in this country? Just a tiny bit. Most of it is due to the fact that as a society we have no history of free expression. A life under dictatorship inside the country and a refugee life outside it meant that there was no basis upon which a culture of free expression could be erected.
The expression of freedoms that were denied under both conditions is one of the stated reasons for the liberation struggle of the 1990s. Therefore, by not exercising these freedoms we betray the struggle for which much was sacrificed.
Self-censorship persists because it serves our interests. On the part of the ordinary person, it lowers the bar for civil engagement, conceals incompetence,promotes mendacity, and affords us the liberty to legitimate rumour as information; for a corrupt public official it affords the opportunity to evade accountability and to personally benefit from people’s fear.
It’s an ugly aspect of our past that we must ensure that younger generations don’t inherit as culture.
We’re all in need of a moment of silence. And a prayer.