How to cover Eritrea
Eritrea has expelled all international correspondents and banned local private newspapers since 2001. One consequence is that Western media have had to play up their “unique” or “rare” access to “the North Korea of Africa.”
Over the last two years, some leading media–having gone through endless bureaucratic hassles and rejections–such as the BBC, France 24, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times have covered Eritrea. Some independent journalists have (dis)covered Eritrea too. For many of us who lived our entire lives in the country, of course nothing is nearly revealing apart from their “sensational” stories. (An exception was the The New Yorker’s coverage in December of a mass defection by members of the Eritrean national team.)
Reporting on Eritrea has reduced into a standard template: it starts with description of how clean and peaceful the capital city, Asmara is (there is also emphasis on its Italian colonial legacy, here reduced to architecture and café culture), inhabited by friendly people. This is usually followed by long descriptions of the palm-tree-lined streets of the capital; disproportionate part on the capital’s art-deco and futuristic buildings; some confused and contradictory notes on the overcrowded cafes (with a note of the recent mass-exodus), visits to the remnants of war tanks near Asmara (linking it with the bloody war of independence) and at last interviewing the usual suspects, media-friendly officials such as Yemane Ghebreab, the ruling party’s political affairs and presidential advisor and the minister of information, Yemane Gebremeskel. The latter two get to dole out their regular scripts of “we are in emergency state and the international community should pressure Ethiopia to demarcate the borders.”
Before the recent “opening-up” policy, during the tenure of Ali Abdu, former information minister who later absconded and sought asylum in Australia, many international media were allowed around Independence Day (in May) where they would strictly be escorted by the journalists of the ministry of information and end up only interviewing the President. Recently, however, Yemane Ghebreab would direct the show with an extensive briefing of each person to be interviewed beforehand, including the seemingly random “taxi drivers.” The guides-cum-interpreters are of course recruited by the party.
As has consistently been the case, many Eritreans outrightly decline to be interviewed, especially by TV stations. Among the chief reasons are the institutionalized fear hammered by Eritrean national media that every expatriate, especially from the West, is as “a CIA agent” and want to destabilize Eritrea. Such narration has been inculcated among average citizens and it is very common in Eritrean cities, for random people to stop a foreigner from taking photos. This is coupled with possible warnings of government escorts before any interview where they traditionally instruct subjects what to say. Of course there is also the language barrier as English is the language of instruction in schools, but not widely spoken in the country unlike many countries of Africa.
Not to mention the possible reprisal if someone openly criticizes the system be it inside or out of the country, most international correspondents also miss out on Eritrea’s closed culture. Let alone with random international journalists, even among family members between home and the diaspora, hardly do many Eritreans openly share the difficulties they are going through. The usual response is “everything is going well.”
The inherent culture of fear extends to exiled Eritreans. With little changes in the ground, most political activities in the diaspora have been long-drawn-out and for many it became a never ending saga. Yet most of the recent exiles are held in a limbo state. Combinations of such independent factors have developed an incestuous culture and extremely stifling atmosphere where a random social media post will immediately be reported to the state security back home.
The level of control and fear for those who live in Eritrea could be difficult to be understood by outsiders who go to Eritrea on a short visit. Such misreading of culture is execrated by the obvious lack of cooperation from Eritreans living inside the country and the journalists’ frame of reporting. As most international journalists only cover what is easily visible from outside, they can hardly delve into the layers of fear and institutional control. For example, since the beginning of October 2016, internet cafes–where the majority of Eritreans access the web via slow, dial-up connections — started to fill out detailed identifications of users.
Not to mention the restriction of movements (apart from the capital and maybe the port-city, Massawa), but it is widely manifested that most of the journalists also land in the country without doing their initial home-works. For example, it has been more a year now that President Isaias Afwerki has moved his office to a dam construction site called Adi-Halo, about an hour’s drive from the capital. None of the most recent coverages have discussed this while it is public knowledge that President Afwerki has practically abandoned his task and is working as site manager (including himself working personally working in the construction), and receiving state guests. Hardly mentioned in the international media coverage is also the bizarre salary increment, commonly referred as “Adi-Halo salary,” where the president from his construction site, gives random salary rises to selected ministries. As a result, a fresh graduate with first degree in one ministry (the country follows fixed and flat scale salary without increment) can earn about twice higher than a master’s holder who worked for ten years in another ministry. What best characterizes “Adi-Halo salary” is being so arbitrary.
In addition to the regular Western framed questions routinely asked to Eritrean officials (they all have polished answers for each of them as well) such as when is Eritrean planning to conduct an election; implement constitution and ask the fate of the Eritrean-Swedish journalist, Dawit Isaak, there are also issues Eritreans want to know and be investigated. For example, despite the recent mining boom in the country, no one knows where the money is going. It is public knowledge among Eritreans that the ruling party and a clique of the President are having exclusive and unaccounted power with the mining income. Yet this has never been investigated apart from Canada’s CBC TV, although that was also mainly if the government is using free labor.
There has also been a consistent misreading about who is who and who are the most influential people in the system below the President. For example, last year the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Osman Saleh, in an interview with Radio France International stated that all political prisoners and journalists who were held since 2001 are well and alive. In response, Amnesty International has issued a statement calling him to release them. Anyone who is familiar with the Eritrean situation, however, is well aware that Osman Saleh is just a symbolic minister and hardly is expected even if himself knows the fate of the political prisoners. The same is true with the Minister of Justice, Fawzia Hashim, frequently interviewed regarding the new normal of arbitrary arrests and endless underground prisons. However, the ministry of justice is just a powerless office and the generals have the highest authority in Eritrea.
Despite the fact that the majority of the youth are in the military and even all civilians are armed since 2012, most international correspondents have been puzzled by the lack of crimes and violence. Of course Eritreans have been armed for generations and everyone is tired of guns. Repercussions of armed robbery or killings are also deeply ingrained in such closed and small society.
As for the crowded cafes and coffee shops in the capital, there is a clear and short explanation to this: most government offices do not have work tasks to adequately keep their employees occupied and they can hardly pressure them to stay in office during work hours. Hence civil servants naturally spend most of their times in coffee shops exchanging gossip/discussing football or use it as refuge. As the economy of the country depends on informal and illegal channels, such as contraband goods and black-market exchange, those who run the informal economy use the cafes as centers; so do families.
The level of migration and family disintegration of Eritrea over the last decade is beyond anyone’s grasp. Take my family, for example, out of nine siblings only three are left in the country and seven of us (six with our families) are exiled. Two out of four are exiled in my wife’s family; two out of three in my roommates’; and three out of four in my brother-in-law’s family, etcetera. The little amount of money being sent to family members at home are not good enough for saving, but to be spent in cafes with friends. This is coupled with lack of culture of saving where most people do not even have bank accounts. For example, I have worked for about six years in Eritrea, often taking more than two relatively well-paid jobs, but I never had a bank account. This is also common.
Do you still want to cover Eritrea? Change your frame and do your homework before starting that derailing entry process.