*Abraham T. Zere
Listed as the last country in the world on Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 World Press Freedom Index (No. 180), and the most censored country on the Committee to Protect Journalists’s (CPJ) 2015 list, that expelled all international correspondents, Eritrea practices near absolute information and thought control. Compounding the Eritrean government’s lock on internal media and information is a lack of communication with the outside world. As reported by Fortune Eritrea is “the world’s least connected country.” Only 1 per cent of Eritreans have access to the Internet and even then, it’s a slow dial-up connection. Globally, Eritrea has the lowest number of mobile-phone users, according to U.N. Telecommunication Union, with only 5.6 per cent of the population using mobile phones.
In addition to the widely reported political crackdown of 2001 that resulted in the ban of private newspapers, followed by detention of members of the reformist group and offending journalists for more than 14 years, incommunicado, the frequent intimidation of journalists, and the raid and mass-arrests at the educational Radio Bana in 2009, the Eritrea Ministry of Information systematically works to inculcate the government’s desired narrative.
According to CPJ, Eritrea has the fifth highest number of journalists in exile in the world.
I am one of them.
In this essay, I will share my firsthand account of the mechanisms of thought control employed by the Eritrean regime – the systemic stripping away of human dignity that cannot be quantified and hence goes unreported. Among others, this has been achieved through the media.
The Eritrean Ministry of Information is the third biggest ministry in the country in terms of budget and personnel after the ministries of Defense and Education. It is the wing of government that undertakes propaganda. The Ministry of Information seeks to paper over the tragic reality – the appalling state of the nation at so many levels – with a garishly positive narrative.
Development activities have been dwindling significantly. To shift attention from that reality, the government uses propaganda in the mass media, along with the incessant playing of patriotic songs, to tell a different story. In order to accomplish this, the Ministry of Information is run by the country’s most trusted and subservient ministers.
This failed system allows ministers to evolve into their own institutions, untethered to any official tradition or expectations.
When they start working, state journalists are immediately forced to master the unwritten laws of the Ministry of Information. This trend is self-perpetuating, cultivating a reliably obedient body that ensures continuity. The Ministry hires journalists mainly from the army or from the pool of high-school graduates who have not attended college. College graduates who have gone through journalistic training are immediately forced to compromise their professional integrity or are coerced into “unlearning” ethical and journalistic standards in order to survive.
News reporting is centralized with little or no autonomy. The national news agency, ERINA, produces what passes as national news, and translates international news from cherry-picked media outlets. Without any adjustment of wording for different media outlets, the exact same news simultaneously appears in all official organs of print and broadcast media on the same day, even when communicated in different languages. Even the least important local news is sifted through tight filters. Ali Abdu, who served as Minister of Information for about 10 years before he fled the regime in 2012 (after successfully institutionalizing thought control and fear), at one point was approving every news item before it was published.
The national media ceaselessly recycles its flimsy news and feeds upon its own propaganda. Opinions are reported as facts; editorials written by the Ministry are made into news two or three days later. A common method of creating news stories is to find two or three usually anonymous people who will reinforce a desired position on an issue.
For example, the state media will interview a few individuals among the handful of tourists who gain entry to Eritrea through tedious screening processes. They’ll communicate the prescribed message – that the country is safe and uncorrupted. This highly controlled form of reporting creates a monotony of style, with the same words and phrases appearing repeatedly in story after story. Citizens and government officials who are approached by the national media almost without fail use the same words that have been inculcated through the media. Journalists often will prepare their selected subjects before an interview to say the intended message.
A substantial portion of the broadcast media are allocated to music, with a disproportionate amount of patriotic songs on playlists. Transitions between songs or segments on radio and TV are usually devoted to the slogans of the different national holidays celebrated with prolonged fanfare. For example, celebration of the Eritrean Independence Silver Jubilee that’s commemorated on May 24 starts on January 15. The national media, both broadcast and print, continuously dwell on the holiday throughout the intervening five months.
International news has been reduced to few select, friendly countries, or focuses on disasters, especially if they happen in the West. News from developing countries is restricted to coups, failed elections and stories of corruptions. Most major events, such as the “Arab Spring” of 2011-12, go unreported, or if any slight mention is made, it’s linked to a Western-inspired conspiracy. Apart from differences in names and dates, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish one news item from the next. This long tradition has perverted the notion of time and space.
Although all sectors of the government are extremely centralized, operating under the presidential office’s close scrutiny, the media are under much more control than the other ministries. The President often comments on or interferes in media programs, with that interference often occurring on a personal level. Sometime in 2007, when sports journalists for the national radio station were on the air discussing the sports club, Chelsea, and profiling its owner, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, the director of the station rushed into the studio and instructed the technician to shut down the program. The director then got on the air and announced that the information being broadcast about the “Chelsea coach” was not well-researched and contained many inaccuracies. The order to intervene came directly from the President, who dislikes Abramovich and his politics, including his alleged ties to Russia’s KGB. When a particular type of interference occurs, the presidential position fueling it evolves into semi-official policy.
In Eritrea, it’s also routine practice to ban singers who are out of favor with the regime and to never show images of certain government officials if they did not have good rapport with former Information Minister Ali Abdu or if they displease the President. Former government officials who are imprisoned are never mentioned in the national media. Anyone who appears in Eritrea’s media is aware of these unwritten policies, though if someone does slip up, editors will censor or cleanse the message. Video footage and photographs showing imprisoned figures are either not used or are heavily edited. TV and radio studios constantly receive calls to interrupt programs. Ali Abdu followed every program whether he was in his office or not (his car was equipped with a TV). That enabled him to call the studios frequently to interfere in live programs.
He often would call newspaper editors and point out minor errors in articles, even typos.
Control, of course, extended to substance as well. What seemed like slight differences of opinion often would be considered dissidence or thought crimes by the government. They were ruthlessly slandered in the national media by Ali Abdu’s surrogates. Members of this “hit-team” used fake names to make them sound like a variety of real people.
Absolute control of media personnel in order to instill fear has long been demonstrated in different forms in Eritrea, including physical assault. It’s common knowledge that the President often scolds and even physically assaults public figures who displease him. Ali Abdu was one of the prime targets. When al-Jazeera’s Jane Dutton directly challenged the President in the rare interview he gave in February 2010, the President expressed his frustration by smacking Minister Ali Abdu in front of his staff members. Other journalists have been physically assaulted by the President on different occasions.
Such practices have only become more frequent and more intense.
Many journalists and top officials of the ministry, including individual ministers, flee the country. Different mechanisms have been employed to terrorize and control journalists. Since early 2016, most of the journalists and staff members who hold key positions in the Ministry of Information have been required to submit detailed personal information that could imperil them or their families if they ever tried to flee the country.
Another mechanism of control that’s practiced is the installation of fear, mistrust and overlapping tasks that reach the highest echelon of government.
When one of the international TV stations, either al-Arabiya or al-Jazeera, produced a program that criticized Eritrean state policy, the Office of the President requested a copy of the program. However, the monitoring unit of the Ministry of Information had failed to record it. The Office of the President requested copy of the program and were predictably unhappy when the Ministry of Information failed to provide copy.
Information Minister Ali Abdu responded by installing 16 mini-screens in his office in an attempt to monitor such programs personally. Until Ali Abdu’s final days in office, the mini-screens played many channels simultaneously throughout the day. Of course, while he couldn’t follow all of the programs at once, especially with the audio muted, he must have felt that he could at least keep tabs on programs that might discuss Eritrea.
Over the last two decades, the national media have played a key role in portraying President Isaias Afwerki as the sole guardian and leader of the country. He has been repeatedly portrayed as a prophetic, multi-skilled man whose opinion carries more weight than that of others, no matter what their expertise. According to the media line, the President is a talented linguist and speaker, whose every utterance is pored over for likely words and phrases that can be retrieved and then recycled repeatedly in the national media. President Afwerki is depicted as a selfless man with a modest lifestyle, an artist, an engineer, an architect, known for his simple dress style (which is mimicked by all ranks all the way down to the lowest government bureaucrats). Overall, the President is depicted as omnipresent, almost god-like figure. On national holidays, monotonous interviews with the President (actually more like monologues) are broadcast repeatedly.
In his regular interviews, President Afwerki talks uninterrupted, sometimes spending more than half an hour answering a single question. Not surprisingly, the President approves all questions prior to any interviews.
These official interviews are broadcast for many days, translated in national and international languages. One interview lasts until another follows on a similar occasion. During the tenure of Ali Abdu, selected quotes of the President were used as programming transitions on national TV under the title, “The Golden Words of Wisdom.” In intervals between his “seminal” interviews, the media extensively cover his “tours of inspection” in different regions of Eritrea. On these tours, the President flaunts his popularity as he’s depicted on TV welcoming children, old men and women who flock to greet the Great Man and touch his magic hands (his so-called wands).
The national media hammer home the message that Eritrea is scoring enormous victories in all sectors against the international community’s ceaseless conspiracies. That message is expected to be repeated across all ranks of government officials. For example, an insignificant school principal is expected to mention the West’s conspiracy in his or her address during school closing ceremony.
Overall, the Eritrean national media has been playing crucial role in painting the country as if showing tremendous achievements. This ceaseless propaganda has effectively distorted the perception of many nationals who do not have access or exposure to the outside world. In many ways it was also instrumental in creating an inherent fear among the citizens and created the assumption that the whole world is conspiring against Eritrea’s sole existence.
*US based, Abraham T. Zere, is exiled Eritrean journalist/writer who is currently serving as Executive Director of PEN Eritrea.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of PEN International.