March 3, 2021 - 7:00am

The Rwandan president Paul Kagame is a master at playing Westerners for adulation and aid money. As I wrote here last week, he has successfully suckered in a long line of leading politicians and other prominent people to pay homage to his reign and pump money into his regime’s pocket.

His latest promoter is media owner Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia, who has recast the gangly dictator as an environmental hero in an interview run in The Independent and the Evening Standard. “We’re trying to move away from our ugly history, to give people hope,” says Kagame, under a headline hailing the president’s “intent to make conservation his country’s next battle”.

Never mind that Kagame is a bloodstained despot who crushes democracy, kills dissidents, kidnaps political foes, loots neighbouring nations and bears personal responsibility for a huge death toll. He says he is planting trees and protecting his gorillas that lure rich foreign tourists. Lebedev does at least touch on concerns about repression and the rendition of Paul Rusesabagina, real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda, but  offers a fresh platform for another raft of wild accusations.

Kagame must have been pleased after the humiliation of Al Jazeera obtaining a video showing British public relations firm Chelgate training his justice minister Johnston Busingye. This cock-up confirmed Rwanda paid for the private jet that captured Rusesabagina and the state is now intercepting privileged communications with his lawyers in violation of judicial rights — confirming there is no hope of a fair trial.

Yet it is depressing to see an influential British media owner offer this pulpit to a dictator with such a dire record on free expression that includes journalists dying in suspicious circumstances, fleeing for their lives into exile and independent outlets being shut down. Perhaps the best known case was Charles Ingabire, editor of an independent news website, gunned down in a Ugandan bar a decade ago.

Might I suggest Lebedev reads Anjan Sundaram’s disturbing book ‘Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship’, which recounts his years trying to teach journalism in Rwanda as he slowly saw the real face emerge of its toxic ruler? One reporter told how if they failed to toe the official line in smearing a jailed opposition leader even their children were threatened. “But if we say she is guilty they leave us alone. So we call her a villain, genocidal.” Another, calling himself one of the “walking dead”, rues how “to control people you need to create a great deal of fear.”

At the end of this fine expose is a list of journalists beaten, exiled, jailed, kidnapped or murdered for doing their job. The author admits it is incomplete, yet it is 12 pages long. Since the book was published five years ago, more names merit inclusion. So much for independent journalism in Rwanda.

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.