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The Danger of the Unspoken

World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the spring 2017 Fascism Rising issue is: What role does the media play in driving xenophobia? Below, Anjan Sundaram argues that a free press guards against a single voice taking hold, as happened in 1994 Rwanda, where the media became a tool to breed loyalty to the government.

By Anjan Sundaram

Two decades ago, the Rwandan government orchestrated a genocide that killed nearly a million people in just 100 days. The few people who opposed the genocide were silenced or killed, until there was only a single voice in the country—the voice of the government. Without opposition, the genocide gained great force. Radio stations broadcasted the locations of families in hiding, so the killing squads could find and murder them. Neighbors slaughtered neighbors. The speed of the genocide exceeded even that of the Nazis.

A free press is a guard against a single voice taking hold. In authoritarian states where dissent is banned, such as 1994 Rwanda, the media becomes a tool to breed loyalty to the government. It amplifies the government’s repressive or xenophobic statements, and dehumanizes the government’s targets, smearing and tarnishing them. In closed communities, dissent festers.

A place without a free press can appeal to some. Such a place can exude a sense of order, in which government orders are carried out efficiently and bureaucracy works like a well-oiled machine. People praise the government and its leader: The streets are clean, and the newspapers are full of good news. Such a place can seem peaceful, but the lack of conflict is only a facade. In an authoritarian state, what appears to be peace is actually a silence born of fear.

The way to diffuse the tension between dissent and xenophobia is to speak to them. A free press is essential for such conversations to be had. What we sometimes mistake for conflict in the media is but the natural process of competing ideas. However abhorrent some of these ideas may be, we are better off hearing them instead of allowing them to gain force in underground communities, where they become heard, and ultimately seem like truths to those who believe them and are unable to voice them elsewhere.

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Anjan Sundaram is a journalist from India reporting on Africa, specifically Congo and Rwanda. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other international publications.

[Photo courtesy of Luciano]

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