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Eritrean community radio divides Minnesota Eritreans

By Sheila Regan, TC Daily Planet An ongoing controversy involving the Eritrean Community Radio program on KFAI, which airs on Sunday afternoons, continues to divide the Twin Cities Eritrean community, with no resolution in sight. The program, which started in

By Sheila ReganTC Daily Planet

An ongoing controversy involving the Eritrean Community Radio program on KFAI, which airs on Sunday afternoons, continues to divide the Twin Cities Eritrean community, with no resolution in sight. The program, which started in the 1990s, is hosted by Essey Asbu, a board member of the Eritrean Community Center, based in St. Paul. Another group, the Eritrean Forum of Minnesota, claims the KFAI program takes a pro-Eritrean government stance, and wants an alternative point of view to be heard.

Over the last couple of years, a number of contentious meetings have been held at KFAI, with Eritrean Forum members demanding time on the program, while many of the program’s listeners (and KFAI contributors) object to the Forum’s point of view.

Eritrean Forum position

Steve Paulos, a member of the Eritrean Forum of Minnesota, moved to the United States in 1974, when Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia. “We’re only asking to have constitutional country,” he said.

Paulos said the KFAI program follows only government-run news. “It’s transmit directly from Eritrea,” Paulos said. “He gives news from one station. We object to that.”

Paulos said the KFAI Eritrean community radio program was “given to everybody to serve the people living here. Unfortunately, it’s been taken over by pro-government people.”

According to Mugaleto Baka, another Forum member, one result from their meetings with KFAI last year was the advice that someone from the Eritrean Forum take volunteer training and begin volunteering with the station. Baka took part in the training program, with the hope that afterwards their group would be able to air their viewpoint. “We were understanding that the hour would be divided in two,” he said.

At first, Baka said, Vargas told him that he would have to submit a copy of whatever announcement the Forum wanted aired. Then, he was told that it was up to Asbu whether to air it or not.

“We’ve been trying to remain neutral on the subject,” said Vargas. “Our programmer is not required to address a U.S. travel warning.”

Essey Asbu’s position

Essey Asbu began volunteering for the program to help a friend in 1998, and 1999 joined as a host of the program, eventually to host by himself, he said.

The basic goal of the Eritrean Community Radio program, Asbu said, is to bring news about Eritrea. Back in the late 1990s, when Eritrea was at war with Ethiopia, “a lot of people didn’t have access to the internet,” he said. Any information people received was through VHS tape, which was often months old. Throughout the years, the program has also incorporated some cultural news as well.

“We can build a bridge between people here and people at home,” he said.

According to Asbu, each program has about 20 minutes of news in the Tigrigna language, with English portions as well.

According to Asbu, Eritrea, as a third world country, has been devastated by war, with entire cities erased. In one of the Northern Cities, only one mosque remained after the war, because, he said, the Ethiopians left it standing so they could find the city.

Since the wars, Eritrea is basically “starting from scratch,” he said. “We were bombed to the stone ages.” The country has few amenities, but the people “pride ourselves in the peace in our country. No one carries guns.”

But Forum members disagree with that assertion. According to Habtemaryam, who came to the United States in 2004, after leaving Eritrea in 2001, Eritrea is a very unsafe place. “Everyone has a gun,” he said. And citizens must request permission to move from one place to another.

Recent controversy over call-in

More recent controversy has erupted over Asbu’s refusal to air a travel warning from the U.S. State Department that explained current conditions that can be faced while traveling to Eritrea. Then, on June 9, Forum member Habtemaryam called in to the program to talk about the 22 years since Eritrean independence. Forum members claim Asbu didn’t allow Habtemaryam to speak, and was generally rude to him.

Habtemaryam’s call on the program this past spring isn’t the first time he’s appeared on the show, Asbu said, and his appearances are always controversial.  Many Eritreans here in Minnesota, he said, don’t like to “let the dirty laundry out. It’s hard to have an open discussion about anything.”

“Every time I have a call-in program, people get disgruntled,” Asbu said, and no one has called more than Habtemaryam. On the Eritrean Independence Day, Habtemaryam called in, and wanted to discuss the 22 years of independence.

Habtemaryam also wanted Asbu to issue a travel warning, saying that there’s trouble for Americans going to Eritrea. The announcement described how if people travel, they must have their passports with them at all times.

On the June 9 show, Habtemaryam said that Asbu wouldn’t allow him to finish talking, and began attacking him. One of their disagreements was about whether there was a university in Eritrea.

Another was Habtemaryam’s contention that 4,000 people flee Eritrea every month, which was reported by the United Nations.

After the interview was finished, Habtemaryam said that Asbu “undermined him” in the media, saying he was stupid and other insults, and attacked him more the following week.

Asbu said he challenged Negassi, saying he had to back it up with facts. “I have to be able to ask questions,” said Asbu.

According to Asbu, Habtemaryam said Eritrea’s independence has been hijacked. Asbu, in turn, wanted to point out improvements in education and health care since the country’s devestation during the Ethiopian war.

According to Asbu, one university was closed in the mid-1990s because “it was not serving its intended purposes.” He said it has been since reassigned to take in law and medical school.  He also said there are seven new colleges since 2000, offering studies in agriculture, sciences, social sciences, etc.

The Eritrean Forum “say I’m an apologist for the government,” he said, but he denies that. He does oppose the sanctions imposed by the United Nations on Eritrea due to their devastating effect. He also takes issue with claims that Eritrea violates human rights.

Asbu acknowledges that young people are fleeing the country, but he says the main reason is economics, and the bad living conditions of Eritrea. Even top ministers abandon their work and go to other countries, in order to pay for their families, Asbu said.

Asbu also acknowledges that there is no independent media in Eritrea, but he says the reason is because in 1995-2000, media was thriving in the country, and there was controversy about media funded by the United States, and so it was forbidden.

The country has had Internet since 2000, but the speed has been very bad. Cell phones became available in 2007. “There is progress,” he said. “Sometimes the very people advocating for change become the biggest stumbling block,” he said.

In 2008, Eritrea kicked out the NGOs, because food aid “has to be self limiting,” Asbu said. “If it doesn’t have an end line, it’s just money for the NGOS. 80 billion dollars go for NGOs every year.”

Eritrea gave up a lot of the aid, and it was a difficult moment, but by 2010, they were feeding the people, he said.

The main stumbling block for peace, Asbu said, is the continuing border dispute. “Ethiopia should pull out,” he said, so that the 350,000 soldiers that are waiting at the border can go home.

Asbu said he gets attacked on both ends, with some from the community saying he’s too liberal, and other saying he’s pro-government. “I’m not going to go out of my way to talk about our great president is.  At the same time-  I won’t say he’s a thief,” he said.

Asbu said he likes to focus the conversation during call-in sessions. Habtemaryam is one of the few people that is willing to put his name out.  Others- no matter what their political views, shy away from speaking out.

KFAI’s response

Last year, former KFAI Executive Director Janis Lane-Ewart agreed to allow the Forum members to contribute announcements and news items to be aired as part of the program.

Notes from the board packet on April 16, 2012, indicate that Lane-Ewart and News Director Dale Connelly met the Eritrean Community Radio host and community members. At that time, Lane-Ewart said, “The programmer is expected to present public announcements as provided to him, and that translation of the program by two impartial translators will begin after pledge drive,” according to the board packet. “These translations are intended to determine if the program is fair, unbiased and representing the views of all Eritreans in the Twin Cities.”

According to KFAI Programming Director Miguel Vargas, the programmer does air announcements if they are not too long. “There are times where some things can be aired like events and announcements,” he said, but often Eritrean Forum members submit “long, opinionated pieces they would like recorded and placed on the show.”

When asked about translations for the portions of the show that are not in English, Vargas said that KFAI doesn’t have translations.

Last August, the Eritrean Forum submitted an announcement that referenced human rights violations by the Eritrean government.

“Management thought it was lengthy,” Vargas said. “It was very political.” Vargas asked the Forum members to make the comment shorter, and he said they got upset, and felt it was censorship. They went to the Board of Directors, who in turn requested that the programming committee investigate the issue.

A meeting in October 2012 “got out of hand,” according to Vargas, and there was no amicable resolution.

KFAI’s programming committee then decided to give Vargas authority to nix any announcements that he doesn’t deem suitable, he said.

“What KFAI has tried to do is stay outside out of the political part of it,” said Vargas.

Asbu is a board member of the Eritrean Community Center of Minnesota, which holds events at a space on University of Minnesota, According to Vargas, members of the ECC have been very supportive of the radio program. “He has a supportive listening audience out there,” he said, which also includes pledge money.

Those listeners associated with the ECC call in to complain when the radio program airs announcements from Eritrean Forum, or when guests such as Habtemaryam call into the program.

“It’s not an easy thing,” said Vargas. “That’s when we realized-  we need to stay neutral.  We need to give better guidelines about getting messages through.”

“Essey has every right as an programmer to set an agenda.  It’s really on the guest to be cooperative with that.”

One alternative that Vargas has suggested to the forum group is to do their own web programming, which could be presented on KFAI’s web page, but so far, they have declined.

Thoughts from others in the community

Marta Merzi, a young woman from Liberia, said she’s a supporter of people having their own opinions, but she said that the members of the Eritrean Forum aren’t given facts. “It’s more venting,” she said.

One of her main issues was with Habtemaryam’s claims that there are no schools, or food in Eritrea. According to Merzi, Asmara University, which was shut down in the aftermath of the war, has re-opened, and there is also Orotta School of Medicine as well a new institute called “The Confucius Institute.”

Merzi said she’s a skeptic of all news. Eritrea, she said, is not looked upon very highly in Western news sources.  She questions some negative allegations about the Eritrean government; such as the coup that she says was not really a coup.

Amnesty International, which claims human rights abuses by Eritrea, she said, is using the claims as a political tactic to “dethrone the ‘other’” she said. “There are plenty of human rights issues around the world that Amnesty International has not spoken on.”

Merzi visited Eritrea in 2002, when she was 17. Although she was not fluent in the language, she said she felt empowered to see so many people with brown skin who looked like her, and people in the government that looked like her as well. There was religious diversity, she said, which she found powerful.

Merzi enoucrages people not to trust government sponsored news either. “Use your own reasoning,” she said. “There are many sources of information. Be fair.”

Rahwa Tesfe, a member of the Eritrean Forum of Minnesota, left Eritrea when she was eight years old, in 1989. She’s been in the United States since 1993.

When Eritrea first gained independence, Tesfe said, “everybody was happy. We are one now, we are united.”  Some people living in the United States moved back. But in 1998, the Border War started with Ethiopia, and people started dividing.

Now, Tesfe said, people are aware of what’ happening to their brothers and sisters in Eritrea, but they “can’t talk out loud, they can’t voice their opinion.”

People who want to go back to Eritrea are especially fearful, she said, because if the government finds out they were speaking out, they will go to prison.

Tesfe said the Eritrean community radio program should serve all Eritreans. She’s been involved in writing leaders and speaking with staff at KFAI about what they can do.

Source: TC Daily Planet

Review overview
  • Negash July 28, 2013

    To: Essey, your brothers, your sisters, your FATHER:

    1. You did not lose anyone so far. How can you understand what loss mean?
    2. You lived in the US did not suffer. How would anyone expect you to feel the
    3. You were / are not deprived from going to school. How should depriving others
    mean something to you?
    4. If you know a dirty laundry in the country, even one!! Why don’t you say that
    is “WRONG and lets correct it”.
    5. Do you know that 99% of you people (PFDJ supporters) do not have “EVEN one
    Person” from your entire families went to meda (Struggle), paid a price one way
    or the other, did not serve in Sawa?
    6. Do you know that most of you either came through Sudan or brought their loved
    ones from Sawa or illegally from Eritrea under “FREE ERITREA”

    I could go on and on “BUT”

    You are my age, you are not young. In our life (yours and mine) we have seen or heard what happened to the supporters of Haile sellasie, we know how the Derg members and their families got hunted. Now do you understand where I am going with this? Do I have to say more? If you and I live long, I will come back to tell you “YOUR TIME TO BE HUNTED HAS COME”.


  • Semere July 28, 2013

    It is disappointing how HGDEG regime can have so many supporters in Northern America and Europe. Living in a democratic countries there are some of us who still support the terrorist regime in Eritrea. It is a clear contradiction. We have unelected regime without constitution for 22 years in power. We have a country that produces the highest number of refugees in the world. We have a government with the highest number of prisons and prisoners in proportions to its population. We have a country with the lowest electric power service in Africa. If these facts can’t convince the Eritrean Diaspora then nothing will. እናሰምዔ ዝሞተስ እንተቀበርካዮ ነይስምዕ. Well, I respect their stand, but they can’t tell me they care about the Eritrean people.
    The problems of Eritrea are self-inflicted by the regime. The people have no say in the running of the country. Nobody triggered the war except the regime itself. In any case, if Eritrea is “roses and flowers” as the supporters in Diaspora advocate, what are they doing abroad? It is high time they go back and enjoy the roses! I just came back from East Africa where I attended the wedding of my nephew. I was shocked to find so many Eritrean youth. Their anger flared still more when they compared the freedom of movement/expression and economic boom of Uganda compared to that of Eritrea. Many are surprised that since their arrival, months ago, nobody asked them “መንቀሳቀሲ”. They are convinced that those in Diaspora who still support the regime are perpetuating their suffering.

  • The eye witness July 28, 2013

    God bless Eritrea

  • The eye witness July 28, 2013

    Nhe, are you going ……………Tigray online ?

  • salma a. July 29, 2013

    community radio in the US which serves pfdj interests! that is so out there. apparently essey is a pfdj repesentative. he is simply repeating what the dictatorial regime officials have been saying for ever. and the radio’s director is so complacent. if it is a community radio then it better start serving the community which consists of diverse political views. i am proud of brother Habtemaryam. keep on fighting. times are changing and unless essey does some soul searching pretty fast our people’s curse will burn him alive. it is really heartbreaking to see how people like essey could choose to dance on the grave of our beloved people and our beloved country. we are a people who had made huge sacrifices to gain independence. eseyas has hijacked our independence . our martyrs are turning in their graves. we are obliged to speak out.

  • Mana korea July 29, 2013

    Deep in my heart, I have to believe that the host (Esey) and Co know the nature of the bandits in Asmara. They may feel that they have mastered the art of living by showing their two sides at the same time and It is possible they may have lost the difference of shrewdness with opportunist. And that goes to every supporter. In some ways, they are victims too – with their money, emotional and social stability, etc.. and in return what do they get? Same fate as the rest of Eritrean brethren – Sawa, Shegerab, Sinai, Liver & kidney, Libya, Mediterranean, Lampedusa, etc…. So, they know!

    The hope is now, too many of them are realizing that their shekortet with the wolf in sheep’s skin hasn’t paid off. In fact, some wise men and women are quickly realizing that this is destroying them beyond recognition. While what we do next (as people) remains foggy, the demise of the bandits in Asmara under their own heavy weight could not get clearer. Just then, watch with no sense of shame when the likes of Essey change the tune of the music to …we have been there all along…. struggled for change… and so on… Their past history, as posted here and there, tells us otherwise.

  • Zeray July 29, 2013

    Classic example on how two Eritreans cannot work together. We strive to weaken each other. It is shame to argue over an hour or so radio programming when many communities have variety of programs all over the U.S. EreTV is all over for Eritrean news, But typical of Shabia behavior, they will not let the truth come out. Their agenda is to block any Eritrean who wants to bring democratic diversity anywhere. Unless the problems In Eritrea is fixed for good, any constructive activity you try to do inside or outside for the citizens will continue to be complicated and disrupted. Sad but true.

  • Semhar July 30, 2013

    The members of the Eritrean community radio should unite Minnesota Eritreans to oppose the tyrant regime in Eritrea.

    We should all learn from our nation the USA.

    On July 4th 1776 the thirteen states declared independence. From day one they implement the constitution George Washington became the first president when his solders wanted to make him a king he refused he wanted a democracy he didn’t want to change the British monarchy into U.S monarchy.

    In Eritrea we never had election and the so-called transitional government has been ruling for the last 22 years without constitution and rule of law.
    The time has come for change in Eritrea and in Minnesota!
    Let’s march for freedom in Eritrea!

    Thanks and may God bless ጅግና፡ ኤርትራዊ ስዉእ ስዒድ ዓሊ ሕጃይ (ወዲ ዓሊ and his courageous comrades who marched with their tanks from Sorona, Akeleguzay to FORTO, Asmera to liberate our land and our people.

    The mad dog, the evil spirit ሕስረት ዝለመደ ዕባይ እንዳ ስዋ Isayas and his blind followers the PFDJ will be smashed!

    Eritrea will be free!

    Let freedom ring in Akeleguzy!
    Let freedom ring in Barka!
    Let freedom ring in Sahil!
    Let freedom ring in Senhit!
    Let freedom ring in Semhar!
    Let freedom ring in Seraye!
    Let freedom ring in Denkel!
    Let freedom ring in Hamassien!
    2013 freedom will ring all over ERITREA!

    ERITREA will be the Land of the FREE and the home of the BRAVE just like the USA.