Unexpected Eritrean Journalistic Voice Rises in Ethiopia

Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) – It took Eritrean journalist Estifo* seven years to save up enough money to pay a fixer to get him and his family from the capital, Asmara, to the shared border with Ethiopia. After they crossed the border by foot, they turned themselves in to the Ethiopian authorities and claimed asylum as refugees.

Now Estifo is one of thousands of Eritreans living in Addis Ababa, where he edits a magazine that aims to dissuade other Eritreans in the Ethiopian capital and dotted around the country in refugee camps from attempting to make the risky journey north through Libya and across the Mediterranean toward Europe.

“The magazine deals with the risks of migration and difficult reality of being in Europe,” says Estifo, the magazine’s editor. “Also once you are in Europe you can’t come back—things change too much. Whereas in Addis there’s more in common, and it’s easier to one day go back to Eritrea.”

Ever since Ethiopia’s late long-term ruler Meles Zenawi established an open-door policy toward refugees, the country’s refugee population has grown to about 700,000, the largest in Africa.

And that open door policy even extends to accepting refugees from a country viewed by Ethiopia as its arch nemesis since a catastrophic two-year war between the two that ended in 2000 but left matters unresolved and mutual antipathy only stronger.

It’s hardly surprising that among those going south over the shared border are journalists. A list compiled in 2015 by the Committee to Protect Journalists of the 10 countries where the press is most restricted ranks Eritrea as the most censored country in the world and Africa’s worst jailer of journalists.

The crackdown on media in Eritrea began in earnest in 2001, reportedly taking advantage of when the world was distracted by the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

“In September they shut down private news channels and most of my colleagues were arrested,” says Estifo, who as a sports writer avoided arrest (a friend had previously advised him to take the position to avoid undue attention).

Still fearing for his safety, however, he joined the military media operating at Sawa, the desert base where Eritrean Defence Forces recruits and national service conscripts are sent for basic military training.

Living conditions were bad, Estifo says, and he was paid only 600 Eritrean nakfa (38 dollars) a month, leaving little after his 500 nakfa rent.

Then in 2007 he managed to get paternity leave with his wife pregnant, and afterwards rather than him returning to Sawa, they went into hiding. For two years Estifo never left his home, he says.

Once he deemed it safe enough, he started to venture out and began selling shoes with the help of his wife, slowly saving money for the escape to the border. Eventually it was time.

“We didn’t sell any of our possessions before we left in case people got suspicious,” he says. “We reached the border around 2 a.m. but we waited until dawn to cross otherwise we might have been shot by patrols.”

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By James Jeffrey

* Only first names are used in this article due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter.