Visit the new AsenaTv Website

The state media has become a propaganda machine and government PR tool, whose job is to paint the government in a rosy light while the Eritrean people face all sorts of political and economic difficulties because of wrong policies and lack of leadership.

A successful past, a failed state and uncertain future!

n the 1950s, Eritrea had two newspapers Hanti Ertra (One Eritrea) and Dehai Eritrea (Voice of Eritrea) which played an important role in the development of national consciousness. During the 1980s and 1990s, the EPLF’s clandestine radio station, Dimtsi Hafash Eritrea (Voice of the Broad Masses of Eritrea) made a significant contribution to raising a certain level of awareness of citizenship and facilitating some level of cultural integration among the Eritrean population. Dimtsi HafaSh was particularly important in mobilising the whole society to participate in the armed struggle for independence.

However, these were revolutionary type of media, with a very specific goal : defeating the enemy. Did they have the capacity to transform themselves into a national media institution afterwards?

Nation-building and development of course have a wider linkage with economic, political, social and cultural aspects of society and impose on the media a much more sophisticated task. Has the Eritrean media been able to update itself in a manner compatible with the new context in which it has to operate and the new demands placed upon it?

This will be the nub of my article.

The state and performance of the media in post- independence Eritrea

In January 1995, President Isaias Afwerki, was invited by the US based Freedom Forum to talk about freedom of expression and he said:

Freedom of expression is a natural, individual right that cannot be deprived, modulated or bestowed by government. If man is a thinking animal, his psychological urge to communicate his views, visions, fears, hopes and anxieties to his fellow human beings cannot, in the end be regulated by a body of legal interfaces, provisions or restrictions (Eritrea Profile, 1995, p.6).

This political attitude must have been one of the factors, which stimulated the west, especially leaders like President Clinton to embrace the president as one of the potential leaders for African renaissance. Our supporters and we Eritreans didn’t only believe in this, but also were proud of it.

In reality however, the approach of the government of Eritrea towards freedom of expression in general, the press in particular was painstakingly different.

� The imprisonment of hundreds of EPLF combatants following the May 1993 demonstration

� The May-Habar killings of disabled fighters in 1994

� The detention of half the government body (Ministers, MPs and Army Generals) on September 18/2001

� The expulsion of the BBC correspondent from Eritrea in 2004

� The revocation of the patriarch of the orthodox church in 2005

� Most importantly, the imprisonment of independent journalists and the complete ban on the infant independent press on the 19th September 2001 is clear evidence of the government�s intention to control and restrict freedom of expression.

Today’s Eritrea has only one radio, one television, one newspaper – all of them owned and run by the government. And this is in the 21st century.

The owner of the media is the government, the source of all news is the government and the only issues raised are about the government.

Nowadays, people call the national newspaper a ‘photo-album of the president;’ the radio, ‘a microphone of the president;’ and the television, ‘a mirror for the president.’

The media is angled to project the might of the leader. Its only function is to publicise his and other prominent leaders’ activities even when they are of little interest or importance. The kinds of stories, which really affect people’s lives, are ignored.

The media not only complies with the restrictions imposed upon it by the state, but also accepts government control over editorial decisions about what news stories will be publicised and what played down. Literally, being the owner, the government imposes restrictions at the policy and technical levels, appoints journalists and fires those journalists who don’t accept government-imposed policies and regulations.

At the same time, as the main source of news, the government exerts direct pressure on the media over what to tell the public, what to cover up and how to present news stories.

The universal values which are commonly recognised in any media organisation, � news worthiness, news values, editorial independence, transparency, public opinion formation, forum for political debate and so on� are nonexistent in Eritrea.

Even with respect to development issues where the media claims that it does best, there is no critical examination or evaluation of events and of their impact on people. The media simply report the claims of government officials and consequently news stories are merely the repetition of official speeches.

The state media has become a propaganda machine and government PR tool, whose job is to paint the government in a rosy light while the Eritrean people face all sorts of political and economic difficulties because of wrong policies and lack of leadership.

The Eritrean people have no voice in the state media unless their comments echo those of the government. The Eritrean people have paid a huge price in order to obtain liberty but have been denied the basic human right of freedom of expression. They are forced to keep silent, even when their children are killed in cold-blood in front of them.

Because they have no voice in the state media, people tune in to international media outlets, even to find out about home and local events. They also resort to rumours and hearsay to satisfy their urge for freedom of expression. Sadly, even here they are unable to speak openly.

The truth is that having a free press is perhaps more crucial for Eritrea than for most other countries. Since there is no constitutional government, the press could have served the people as an institution promoting transparency and accountability. If the independent press had been able to play a watchdog role this would to some extent have balanced the outputs of the state media and could have contributed to the nation building and development process.

However, Eritrea is denied a free press in the very same way and for the very same reasons that it has been denied constitutional government.

The tight control of the media, which is taking place in the name of national security, has produced non-participatory, one-way communication. As reporting the doings of the government is the main function of the media, its social and political value has diminished to zero. At this juncture, the state owned media in Eritrea has become a medium where the government overwhelmingly relays on to ask excessive duties from citizens, where as the Eritrean people is unable to claim the very basic rights through it. The media has literally become a mouthpiece of the government and a tool for dictatorship.

With the following illustration, let me summarise how the media failed miserably in its performance in the post independence period.

The graph shows, the national newspaper�s annual circulation between 1991 and 2001. During the first year of its publication, Hadas Ertra had a circulation of 17,000. And it achieved steady progress in the following years, 30,000 in 1997 being the peak of its circulation. However, at the end of 1997, this trend was reversed when the independent press started publishing. At this point the circulation of the state owned newspaper showed a sharp decline, falling as low as 16,000 in 2001, a figure even lower than its circulation during its first year of publication. In the same year (2001)the circulation of the first independent newspaper, Setit reached 40,000.

The infant independent newspapers overtook the national newspaper in popularity for one simple reason. Hadas Eritrea was overtaken because the independent newspapers brought into the open the issues that the state-owned media wanted to cover up.

The independent newspapers were poor in their institutional and technical capacity, and in their journalistic experience. Despite their weaknesses, they filled the gap left by the state media by giving some kind of a voice to the public’s real concerns.

Particularly from early 2001, when the G15 MPs challenged the government and demanded democratic reforms, they provided the reformers with a forum where they could express their demands and principles.

Until September 19 2001, when the editors and journalists of the independent press were imprisoned and the entire independent press was shut down, these newspapers provided the public with a platform for political debate.

Even before moving decisively against the press, the government had shown signs that it was not comfortable with having an independent media. The government used various stratagems to weaken the independent press. For instance whereas during the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia journalists had been exempted from national service, once they started criticising the government, they came under official pressure to perform their ‘national duty’. Many independent journalists also complained about threats from members of the security forces.

But September 19 2001 was the moment when the government acted boldly and made clear that its ultimate intention was to consolidate its hold on power. The independent journalists who were detained then without due process of law are still in jail. The imprisoned journalists are:

Amanuel Asrat, Zemen, Dawit Habtemichael, Meqaleh, Fesshaye Yohannes, Setit,Mattewos Habteab, Meqaleh, Medhanie Haile, Keste Debena, Said Abdelkader, Admas, Selamyinghes Beyene, Meqaleh, Seyoum Tsehaye, free-lance, Temesgen Ghebreyesus, Keste Debena, Yusuf Mohamed Ali, Tsigenay.

It is with good reason that the country is often called, “the biggest prison for journalists in Africa�. Under the current government, journalism is a dangerous profession in Eritrea.

September 18-19 2001 will be remembered as the date that the Eritrean government betrayed the democratic transition and the hope of constitutional government and the rule of law. And every generation felt bitterness at this betrayal. No good news has come out of Eritrea since that time.

Shortly after this date, official propaganda began to extend into the homes of Eritreans in the Diaspora thanks to satellite communication channels. But the quality of the state media has deteriorated dramatically even from its own low standards. Its deliberate disinformation is so obvious that it fails to convince anyone. What you can now see on the television screens is schools without teachers, clinics without nurses, roads without vehicles, and dams without water reserves. The state-owned media report these so-called development issues in order to maintain the government�s legitimacy and create the illusion that the government is working when day by day it is destroying the country and itself.

Had it not been for the Internet, the Diaspora and the rest of the world would have been kept in dark with regard to the human rights abuses and the misdemeanours that are taking place in Eritrea. In fact, the government had been as reluctant and slow to permit Internet into the country as it had been with the independent press. At a certain point, it also threatened to close the Internet under the pretext that parents were complaining that their children were using it to view pornography. The real motive of course was to cut Eritrea off from the rest of the world and to limit the flow of information into and out of the country. Thank god, the last country to introduce Internet technology didn’t become the first to close it down.

As I come closer to conclude my presentation I would like to draw your attention to a quotation by the President which I got from a documentary made by the journalist Mark Corcoran for Australian television in 2004:

The president was asked: ‘Why isn’t there any free press in Eritrea?’

The president replied with a question: ‘What is free press?’

When probed,

The president again said: “There is no free press anywhere. It�s not in England; it�s not in the United States. I would like to know what free press is in the first place.�

And remember the Quotation of the President at the Freedom Forum, which I cited during my introduction:

“Freedom of expression is a natural, individual right that cannot be deprived, modulated or bestowed by government. If man is a thinking animal, his psychological urge to communicate his views, visions, fears, hopes and anxieties to his fellow human beings cannot, in the end be regulated by a body of legal interfaces, provisions or restrictions” (Eritrea Profile, 1995, p.6).

This tells us that the President Isaias of 1995 and the President Isaias of 2004 are poles apart. The failure of the Eritrean media and the failure of the Eritrean leadership are two sides of the same coin. The institution is the victim of an ideology which needs an out-dated communist style media to bolster its obsession with dictatorial control. That is why the Eritrea of today is effectively a nation without any media at all.

However, the damage that this does isn’t limited just to the present day. The government’s corrupting influence on the media will bequeath a negative legacy for generations to come. It is alarming for example that the culture of intolerance of our leaders can be seen extending its roots into Eritrean society in general. The legacy of this for us as journalists is that we face a challenging task in trying to build a truly independent media able to contribute responsibly to nation building, to the promotion of democratic values and to the construction of a society where political and social differences are respected.

Amanuel Eyasu