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.”

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By Abraham T. Zere

Credit picture: Afp/Getty Images.