By Abraham T Zere
Eritrea’s transformation into a police state started with a ban on independent media 16 years ago today.
By demolishing the independent media, ceaselessly recycling tired propaganda, and introducing pervasive censorship, Afwerki has created a grim state, writes Zere [Reuters]
People who haven’t experienced Eritrea’s descent into totalitarianism first hand cannot truly understand what daily life looks like there. Even the infamous labels associated with the country – such as “most censored” country on Earth or the bottom-ranked nation on the Press Freedom Index for 10 consecutive years – do not help understand Eritrea’s day-to-day reality.
So let me share my first-hand experience.
Exactly 16 years ago, on September 18, 2001, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and his clique banned seven independent newspapers and imprisoned 11 of the most senior government officials.
That “Black Tuesday” was the start of Eritrea’s transformation into the police state that it is today. Before this happened, despite various challenges, Eritrean independent media briefly had created space for open discussion, even providing a forum for dissident political leaders.
The first official response to the promising signs of a vibrant press and open political forums in Eritrea came in early September 2001 when President Afwerki appointed Naizghi Kiflu as minister of information. Kiflu had acquired a bad reputation for being a brutal and merciless commander during the struggle for independence. He had served as chief of the infamous military prison then called the Revolutionary Guard. Never shy about his dark past, in his first meeting with the ministry’s staff members and journalists, Kiflu reminded them that he had been “a cruel cadre and ex-chief of the Revolutionary Guard”.
After banning private newspapers and ordering a swift wave of arrests, the minister circulated an order to Eritrea’s printing houses to immediately cease printing any material, including wedding invitations and nightclub posters.
Thus, began the country’s steady descent into the abyss.
In a typically nerve-racking second meeting with the ministry staff, following the private newspaper ban and imprisonment of several independent journalists, Minister Kiflu referred to journalists as a “bunch of rodents,” declaring that “it is not that difficult for the Eritrean government to get rid of rodents.”
Though Kiflu’s tenure was brief, it was long enough to create an atmosphere of fear in the ministry characterised by the constant feeling of insecurity, arbitrary arrests, and the introduction of a semi-military structure to the ministry.
His successor as de facto minister of information, Ali Abdu Ahmed, lifted the ban on printing and replaced it with ubiquitous and pervasive censorship. For over a decade, Eritrean artists and writers were beaten down by this medieval exercise of censorship. The ministry ordered that lyrics be changed in song stanzas and chapters be deleted or rewritten in books for no apparent reason. Frequently, these orders weren’t based on political objections as much as the personal whims of government censors or in some cases, merely the censor’s perverse desire to exercise power.
In time, the ministry’s brutal crackdown on independent media and senseless censorship of any form of art caused Eritrean artists to avoid presenting sensitive artworks to the office for consideration. Naturally, as they ran out of content to censor, the censorship office devolved into an “advisory” unit, in which the personal suggestions and preferences of the censors became the de facto policy of the ministry. This had the effect of totally silencing all artists and writers, putting them into indefinite artistic hibernation.
Fear and centralisation
Ali Abdu – Afwerki’s mentee – served for more than a decade as de facto minister of information until he finally fled the country in 2012. Following Kiflu’s short tenure characterised by fear and intimidation, Abdu institutionalised mechanisms of control and turned the national media into a giant mirror of the president. Through Abdu, the ministry of information began resembling a cadet school. It also started running semi-military prison centres.
Abdu not only ruled by creating fear among his subordinates; he himself lived in perpetual anxiety, constantly currying favour and seeking approval from his boss, President Afwerki. Interestingly, although Abdu was commonly referred as a minister, especially by the international media, he has never been conferred as a minister, nor acting minister, even. His post was director of the national TV, Eri-TV and officially, he was addressed as “Ali Abdu from Ministry of Information.” Knowing his ambition and constant seeking of approval, Afwerki certainly kept him in that ambiguous post to maintain his own interests and possibly keep him in check.
Fully devoted to only serve the president, at some point, Abdu began reading and approving every local news item before it could be printed or broadcast.
Deeply familiar with the unbending system and armed with sniffy threshold guardians from top to bottom, he hardly allowed any sensitive material to pass muster. Abdu was very fastidious about ensuring that no one in the president’s disfavour would receive any media coverage. Only Abdu, and those like him who had mastered the labourious task of reading the emotions of the president, could head such a tattered media.
If his staff failed to live up to expectations, Abdu would take the task himself. One time, when the monitoring unit of the ministry failed to record a TV programme broadcast by an international network that criticised Eritrea, President Afwerki’s office complained.
Abdu responded by taking up the matter himself. In order to personally monitor and record such programmes, he installed 16 mini-screens in his office that showed major news networks from around the world. These screens were kept on the whole day while he went about his routine.
The emperor’s new clothes
After destroying the blossoming media scene of the young African nation to serve his own interests, President Afwerki now has a media apparatus that enables him to vent however he likes.
He frequently gives “short interviews” to the national TV that run for about two hours. The president approves all questions beforehand. The sole task of “journalists” is to help him transition from one topic to another and keep him talking on the overall subject.
Typically, Afwerki takes about half an hour to respond to one question. No wonder that in one of these pre-recorded interviews, journalist Asmelash Abraha fell asleep in the middle of the president’s long reply.
When not broadcasting these pseudo-interviews, the national TV reports on Afwerki’s endless “tour of inspection” around the country, where he spends ample time observing development endeavours and supervising projects, such as the construction of dams.
Avoiding state TV
Afwerki may have the means to print and broadcast whatever he likes, but hardly anyone is left to listen to or read what he is saying. Eritrean citizens hardly ever watch the national television, Eri-TV, whose motto is “serving the truth” as it failed to report on major international events such as the Arab Spring and continues to stay silent about many other crucial regional developments. If Eritreans had to depend on their state media outlets, they wouldn’t know, for example, that Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak had been removed from power.
Meanwhile, Eritrea’s state newspaper has effectively devolved into an obituary news bulletin. Readers typically start with classified ads inserts or read from the back to the front starting with sports.
Stuck in such a grim and unperceptive media environment, Eritreans devised new forms of civil disobedience. To be able to evade the country’s only state TV station, almost every household in Eritrea has installed a satellite-dish receiver.
After free media was destroyed in Eritrea, it did not take long for the country to become fully militarised. The military soon took over schools, administrations and most civilian posts. In addition to the systematic dismantling of education, press, commerce and religion, the September 2001 crackdown brought open hostility towards the rule of law and accountability.
Military commanders started establishing underground prison facilities for extracting money from inmates’ relatives. Today, there are more than 360 “correctional facilities” mostly run by the military commanders. Now that there is no independent press to keep it in check, the military, which gained the most power in Afwerki’s regime, is ruling the country.
A Special Court has also endorsed and furthered this systematic obstruction of the rule of law. A military tribunal run by undertrained military commanders rules on most court cases. Civilian courts, including the Supreme Court, have been reduced to handling petty theft and family law cases. These civil courts are obliged to consult the military commanders before handing down verdicts on important issues. Naturally, the commanders request revisions until a verdict to their liking is reached.
By demolishing the independent media, ceaselessly recycling tired propaganda, and introducing pervasive censorship, Afwerki has created a grim state. As a result, Eritrea transformed into a monotone nation whose entire populace utter the same expressions that had been fed through the national media, literature and art production. Afweki’s media is trying to project an image of Eritrea as an ideal state, but this image is only suspended in the national media and is exactly the opposite of the reality of present-day Eritrea.
Abraham T Zere is a US-based Eritrean writer and journalist who is serving as the executive director of PEN Eritrea in exile. Among others, his articles – that mainly deal with Eritrea’s gross human rights abuses and lack of freedom of expression – have appeared in The Guardian, The Independent and the Index on Censorship Magazine.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Horndiplomat editorial policy.