Remembering the day the Eritrean press died
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.