Inform, Inspire, Embolden. Reconcile!

A Reporter’s Guide To (Gov of) Eritrea

Dear Western reporter:

You are in Eritrea for a “rare visit.”  Actually, it is not so rare anymore but your editor will insist that he put that phrase because it gets viewers/readers/listeners. That or “exclusive.”  Almost all you knew about Eritrea before your visit was that it was the “North Korea of Africa.” You were too busy to do a lexis-nexis search, but if you had, you would have learned the phrase originated in 2007, when the Los Angeles Times was sourcing some un-named diplomat.  He said that the Eritrean regime is going to turn Eritrea into Albania or Korea. Clip, clip, morph: North Korea.

You have been in Eritrea three whole days now. Two more months in Eritrea, despite the fact that you don’t speak any of the local languages, you can call yourself an “Eritrea expert”, if your last name is Bruton. You have not seen a single monument, statue or mural of President Isaias Afwerki. You have seen that women are allowed to wear pants and there are no “trousers police” enforcing a dress code.  In your hotel room, and everywhere, you see satellite dishes, and there doesn’t seem to be censorship. When you try to file your reports, you notice that the Internet has a “poor country problem” and not a “censoring country problem.”  In stark contrast to North Korea, you are awakened by loud morning prayer Azan from the mosques, and church bells.  You meet an 8th-grader in the bus and browse his text books: there is not a single reference to President Isaias Afwerki or pictures of 3 generations of Isaias’s family, indoctrinating the child with cult of personality.

Clearly, you say, the comparison doesn’t hold.   But you are not a superficial person; you are a trained investigator: there had to have been a reason for someone to have come up with this comparison.  Remember, the phrase was coined in 2007 when Eritrea, through action and inaction, was beginning the process of isolating itself from the East African inter-governmental association (IGAD); withdrawn itself from the African Union; pursued contrarian policies in Somalia; gotten itself on a path to UN/US/EU sanctions, twice; began the process of emptying itself out of its productive citizens; and bragged about the achievements of all the foreign armed groups it is hosting in Eritrea. It has been accused of inflicting collective punishment (just like North Korea), a hierarchical/apartheid system (just like North Korea’s “songbun” hierarchy; except Eritrea’s is based on party loyalty); public executions within its military ranks for minor infractions;  extremely restricted freedom of movement (just like North Korea); and a scarily large number of people who are made to disappear for disagreeing with the government.  And its people, when allowed to be interviewed, speak in the stilted language of the frightened, like an abused child, with their eyes darting left-and-right on a look out for a plain-clothes spy.  (By “its people”, I don’t mean the over-fed Diaspora Eritrean on a visit from the West to check on his investment, whose knowledge of Eritrea is barely more than yours, and whom you will instantly recognize by his/her meat-to-bone ratio.)

Well, you say.   That sounds like an exaggeration.   I am just going to have to find out for myself!  Good for you.   Now, the first thing you will learn is that Eritrea, which has a population of 6.5 million, 5.5 million, 4.5 million under 4 million people (our population is a State secret) has only three (3) qualified individuals to speak to the press. Everybody else, no matter how senior in the government or party, can’t be trusted not to deviate from the script.  They are President Isaias Afwerki; Mr. Yemane Gebreab, who is the Presidential Advisor and the Political Director of the ruling party, front,  movement; and, Mr. Yemane Gebremeskel, who is the Minister of Information. If you have unrestricted time, you can interview the President (caution: question time to answer time ratio = 1 minute: 20 minutes.  In one hour, you may get to ask 3 questions and it is rude to interrupt); if you want the classic easy-to-provoke wild body language of a propagandist, you can go for Yemane Gebremeskel. If you want the killing-you-softly-with-his-lies official, you can go for Yemane Gebreab. Of late, Gebreab has developed that one-question-deserves-20-minute-answer approach of his mentor, Isaias Afwerki, so be forewarned. But I am prejudicing you, so let’s go for your tool kit: here’s what you will be told*, and what you should ask as a follow-up question:

1.  The G-15, (the government/party officials who were made to disappear in September 2001) were all senior military leaders who had a destructive role in the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia.

Reporters Follow-up:  My understanding is that of the G-15,  eleven were arrested; the rest were outside the country, and 1 withdrew his support on the petition-for-a-meeting he signed. The information I have is that of the 11, only a few had senior military roles (and not during the 98-00 border war, but the War of Independence of 61-91), and most–Haile Derue, Mahmud Sherifo, Aster, Germano Nati, Kekya, Beraki Gebreselasse, etc–were never military leaders at any time. So, your claim that the G-15 were all senior military leaders is not based on facts, is it?

2. The G-15 were guilty of treason and compromising national security…

Reporters follow-up: Which court of law found them guilty of that?  Because your own Penal Code and Penal Procedure (the OLD and the NEW) say that you have a process you must follow to establish guilt and imprison people. Clearly, you have not followed this procedure.  Is it not a form of power abuse to deny people due process?  Would you wish upon yourself and your family this standard of justice? 

3. This government is the cleanest, most uncorrupt government in Africa.

Reporters follow-up question: I understand what you mean by lack of corruption.  You mean public funds embezzlement.  Forgetting for a minute that Eritrea always appears in the list of the least transparent countries (Transparency International) and there are no independent validators for your claim, let’s focus on another form of corruption: some would say that your decision to monopolize power for 25 years and not give the people the right to fire you is a form of corruption and power abuse. In fact, that is the very definition of power abuse.  How would you reply to that?

4.  We live with the people, our children attend public schools; there is no elite class here.

What percentage of government officials’ wives and children–including conscription age, i.e. 18-40– live in Europe and how did they get there?  Do you think it is a form of government privilege, an elite apartheid class system, for families of government officials to get visas to travel and get exempted from military service when ordinary Eritreans can’t and are in prolonged national service?

5.  We have named a panel of experts to draft a new constitution.

Reporters follow-up: Can I have their names and contact information so I can interview them and see the progress they are making in drafting the constitution? This will help me compare it with the 1997 constitution that was discarded.

6. There is no censorship in Eritrea.  People are free to watch any TV station, and listen to any short-wave radio.

Reporters follow-up: But why doesn’t the State-owned media–Eri-TV, Hadas Ertra, Dimtsi Hafash–allow anything critical of what the government does?  Not just the quality of the services bureaucrats provide, but domestic and foreign policies that the government pursues?  If the State media doesn’t do that, isn’t it saying that all the people agree with every single policy the government pursues?  

7. Eritrea’s economy is about to take off. Recently, we gave raises to our civil servants, substantial raises…

Reporters follow-up: In my research of Eritrea, I found a lot of reference to Eritrea’s economy always being on the runway to take off, but it never seems to take off. May I have a list of individuals in civil service and national service so I can substantiate your claim that they received substantial raises?

8. There is no collective punishment in Eritrea. That is a lie.

Reporters follow-up: The information I have is that when National Service members fled, you fined or imprisoned their parents. Can I have unfettered access to the national service members, and their families, so I can interview them myself?

9. The claim that Eritreans are in an “indefinite national service” is not true. Some individuals, a few, had to have their terms extended, but that is the exception and not the rule.

Reporters follow up: Last year, you were quoted as saying that National Service would be absolutely restricted to 18 months effective January 1, 2016. This year, your government reversed this claim. So why should people believe your claims? Can I have unfettered access to national service members to make sure that you don’t screen them?

10. We don’t torture people. There is no rape in Eritrea. These are offensive claims that insult not the government, but the proud people of Eritrea.

Reporters follow-up: Everywhere in the world, there is a positive co-relation between militarization and incidents of violence including sexual assault. Since you are claiming that this does not apply to Eritrea, can I have unfettered access to national service members, including demobilized female members? Do you think a person who is best friends with those who are accused of rape can be neutral and objective?  Can I visit prisons, including Eila Eiro, where I can interview prisoners about their condition. 

These are just SOME of the follow-up questions a reporter must be equipped with. Eritreans who read Mzungu reports, after a 3-day visit to Asmara where they invariably (a) describe palm-tree lined boulevards; (b) espresso machines and cafeterias; (c) art deco Italian architecture; (d) tank graveyard, (e) other shallow observations that shed no light on what goes on in barracks and prisons will have more to say in the comments section below.

Thank you

* PS: Just like every failing Arab government blames Israel for its massive shortcomings, you will notice that Eritrean officials will bring Ethiopia into their answer, regardless of the subject.

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  • Desbele

    Selam,
    France 24 are real reporters. Despite the govts effort to show selectively what they want them to see, the reporters were smart enough to report on what I would dare say the best and balanced tv reporting from inside our secretive Eri.
    Judge for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YW95Zn4wII

  • DreadFool

    Salem and ciao, gotta get back to contraganda class

  • Ambassador

    SAAY,
    The follow-up questions will prompt clichéd rebuttals from the interviewee. The interviewee will immediately throw tantrums: “you are coming with a list of questions provided to you by the state department or CIA; and you are trying to make these issues political issues.” “What constitution? We will wait 4 or 5 centuries, until a Buddhist monk is elected king in Saudi. You are [dis]informed, what opposition? They will be released from prison in the next life when we all are reincarnated as mantises? I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!!!!” Then he retreats back to his dark room, lie in a fetal position sucking his thumb. He may as well go boot and rally on successive lines of Gin bottles, for days, alone.

    • saay7

      Selamat Ambassador:

      Well, then, the reporter will accurately report that the Eritrean government official was unhinged, in much the same way Al-Jazeera did in two interviews with IA several years ago.

      The whole “North Korea of Africa” is just short hand for journalists because, in the grand scheme of things, virtually nobody has heard of Eritrea. It is shorter than saying “it is a country in East Africa, neighboring Ethiopia…”, which is what Eritreans tell foreigners who have never heard of the country. Metaphors are problematic: I had a long discussion with Ghezae Hagos last year on my problem with the “North Korea of Africa” label: it is easier to spot the differences than the similarities and it (a) gets observers to dismiss our claims of human rights violations as exaggerations (b) makes us use Ferenji-created concepts to describe the reality when we should be the owners.

      I am actually more interested in helping journalists do their job: there is a reason why the Eritrean government invites little-known or easy-to-influence reporters/observers to the country. Any time it has invited seasoned journalists (The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, France 24), they have seen through the facade.

      saay

  • Robel Cali

    Salem to everyone

    It’s hard to take this “guide” seriously because the author is hinting/claiming Eritrea is similar to North Korea. This comparison is an absolute lie. Even those who dislike the government know such depictions of Eritrea are politically motivated and false. Yet, we have one of our own (an Eritrean) trying give this silly comparison shelf life because he has an axe to grind against the government. Simply put, this is cheap politics the author is playing.

    I know first hand Eritrea is not the North Korea of Africa. How do I know this? Because I’m an Eritrean who regularly visits Eritrea for extended periods of time. In fact, I would argue you’re less informed about the realities of Eritrea today than these very white journalists you’re attempting to mock since they have been to Eritrea more than you have within the last 18 years.

    Lastly, the North Korea of Africa comparison was first given to Eritrea by an evangelical pastor from the United States in 2005, after Eritrea made American-sects of Christianity (Pentecostalism, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormons, etc) illegal in Eritrea. This false comparison was subsequently politicized by ignorant journalists and bloggers who ran wild with it to click-bait readers.

    • Ismail AA

      Selam Robel,

      But how do you describe a regime that kidnaps people and never lets out anything about them for 25 years? What do you a regime that jails elderly people for years without any due process? What do you call a regime that banishes hundreds of people without a trace for decades? What do call a regime that rule by decrees for a quarter of a century? and the list of question goes on and on. I think your exposure to the realities of the country is either shallow or you are a die hard supporter of the regime, and the list goes on and on.

      Ismail

      • Robel Cali

        Hi Ismail

        You call the government by its name and not by a Asian country that has the capacity to launch nuclear warheads and hit the Western half of the United States.

        And there are two sides to every story.

        Saying i’m either this or that implies you’re trying to dismiss my ideas by putting a label on me.

        • Ismail AA

          Dear Robel,
          No body is trying to dismiss your ideas or opinion. In fact I would like you and encourage you to look at the situation in our country a bit closely. The matter has nothing to do with names. We are discussing policies and how nations ought to behave. I assure you that we all love our young country for which we have paid dearly in blood and sweat. But we rejecting is that our people have been denied of their rights and many compatriots are suffering. If you would choose to give your self time to meditate and try to study the situation more closely, I am sure you begin to realize that all is as you seem to understand. I hope you will just do that and try to have balanced judgement.
          Regards

    • Nickname

      “I know first hand Eritrea is not the North Korea of Africa. How do I know this? Because I’m an Eritrean who regularly visits Eritrea for extended periods of time” Hmm, makes you wonder why Robel chose to become a visitor to the country he loves and tries to defend it as not the North Korea of Africa. If I were you Robel, I would ignore every written article and go live in Eritrea for good (not the North Korea of Africa) – not just visit. Then your actions will silence all the critics.

    • iSem

      Hi Robel:
      Your line of American-sects of Christianity illegal is telling, you are a PFDJ apologist and not an Eritrean who is trying to protect Eritrea from whatever imagined enemies you hear and see in your nightmares. I say it is telling because this so called American (western) sects were not banned in2 005, they were banned in 1977, in the first congress of EPLF, which dubbed them the western religions as if and Protestants and Catholic, two religions that IA and SebhatA and Petros Solomon and Yemane Monkey adhered to in during their teenaged days are not western religions.
      But after independence the PFDJ allowed all these sects and others to flourish during the honey moon period, not really allowed per se, they fell through the cracks because it was honey moon, but then since IA is scared from any gathering, he banned and disappeared them, there are JWs still in prison for 23 years
      You are in pain because someone called your government NK, an apt description but you are ok with the suffering of the people behind these sects.
      If the whites journalist are more informed then whey is the COI report a “lie”, and visiting regularly does not qualify you as more informed, it is your objectivity and dispassionate observation that counts and that is what the author is trying to tell the Mzungus, they did not apply the same rigor with GoE like they do with their own government and instead they talk about streets with no panhandlers, but they do not dig deeper to find out that almost every household in Eritrea panhandles even if the nice house they have built in the good days is still up, even if they put on the suit they have tailored during the good days. And they do not find about the banned homeless people, so they get enchanted by the panhandlers and homeless free streets of Asmara.
      The white journalists that you believe when it suits you and pooh-pooh when they transcribe the agony of Eritreans in COI do not bother to write about ta father who serves in the modern slavery NS for 22 years, assigned as a trainer, one day his jolted from his denials when his first born daughter joins him in Sawa when, two generations of enslaved people that is the gist of this article.
      Anyone who regularly visits Eritrea at this day and age and stays for longer a beneficiary of the agony, enslavement, rape that are committed on his behalf, an enabler of them all. Harsh,

    • Yohannes Zerai

      Dear Robel Cali,

      Here we go again! Anything that exposes the brutality of the Eritrean regime can be nothing but “politically motivated!” Have we not heard this worn out excuse thrown around over the last few years! Come on! People have to at least try to be creative if they, unfortunately, must allow themselves to be in a state of denial regarding the objective realities of their country and its people.

      Good for you that you are on top of things regarding the genesis of the “North Korea of Africa” label that you claim to abhor! But, if you really believe this characterization of the Eritrean regime is nonsensical, why are you so hung up on its use to the extent that you felt compelled to correct others on its origin or on the history of how it developed? I personally object to the use of the expression to describe the political situation and human condition in Eritrea. I believe that doing so trivializes the crisis that presently confronts Eritrea and its people. The REALITIES in Eritrea speak for themselves and their abhorrence needs no emphasis or exaggeration mediated through the use of clichéd remarks or quotations.

    • Tewelde gebremariam

      Hi Robel Cali,

      I agree with you that Eritrea is not North Korea; the Eritrean situation, politically, economically, socially, technologically etc., is a lot worse . The differences spring from the goals the mafias of each country are bent to achieve. While that of the North Korea is for maintaining the aristocratic family and therefore needs the continued existence of the people unlike that of the Eritrean Mafia ,which takes the people for its enemy .Herein lies the reason the N.Korea Mafia grows the population, the economy technology and takes extra measure to make sure that no North Korean escapes to the outside world , unlike that of the Mafia in Eritrea, which has purposely dilapidated the economy of the country, disintegrated the sociable fabric of the people, encouraged prostitution, prevented the growth of the peoplation by keeping the child-bearing age groups in war situation , concentration camps and in prisons indefinitely; accelerate the mortality rate by starvation, withholding medicine and timely surgical intervention etc. And it has been commiting all these heinous crimes under the guise of false patriotic love for the people and country.

  • Hope

    Hahah SAAY,that was my question to you whne I asked you to challenge Yemane GhebreAb’s Interview with the German Journalist.
    Hope the same GermanJournalist will read you even though it is addressed to Ms Burton(generic!)..
    Kind of a late advice but late better than never….

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