It is a given that politicians have a very heightened awareness of the importance of information and they try to manage it as much as they can. Politicians want to determine what kind of information is available to the public, when the information is made available, and how best to package it—spin it—so it provides maximum advantage to the politician. In free and democratic countries, journalists, working in the public interest, attempt to disrupt the machinations of politicians by providing timely and accurate information to the public—on the theory that democracy requires an informed populace to make informed decisions about its choices. One of the definining features of totalitarian regimes like the one in Eritrea is that they lie—even when they accrue no benefit by lying. In essence, lying becomes second nature to them and, reflexively, they reach out for it. This is exactly what happened with the Eritrean regime as it tried to manage the information about the volcano that erupted in the Denkalia region on June 12, 2011.
On Sunday, June 12, 2011 at 9:00 PM, the Nabro Volcano in the Denkalia region erupted. The eruption followed a series of earthquakes. Plumes of ash were spread throughout the neighboring nations, resulting in cancellation of flights.
The next day, June 13, 2011, Eritrea’s so-called “Cabinet of Ministers” was having one of its irregular meetings. The reportage of the ministers’ meeting does not mention the volcano or its impact on the Eritrean people. The same evening, the state media made a brief mention of the volcano and indicated that there was no damage to property or injury to people, as it reported.
On June 13, the website of the Eritrean Ministry of Information, shabait.com, had this to say:
“The Southern regional Administration disclosed that the Government has moved the inhabitants in the area to a safe place, in addition to providing them with the necessary care. No damage has so far been inflicted to human life , the Administration added.”
When disasters, particularly natural disasters, strike, there is an outpouring of compassion for the victims and the human instinct is to help. But from the standpoint of the Eritrean regime, the motivation is always to show that (a) there is no problem in the country and (b) if there is a problem, the government will take care of it. One of the disclosures in wikileaks was that when the whole world was expressing concern about the famine in Eritrea, and the Eritrean regime was denying it loudly while mocking the way UNICEF calculates malnutrition, while it was telling Eritreans to skip breakfast and stop acting so spoiled, it was quietly telling UNICEF that there is famine in Eritrea, and they do need help:
“In a surprising departure from his public pronouncements on the non-existence of hunger in Eritrea, President Isaias admitted to visiting UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde Johnson that there is famine in the country and UNICEF´s help is needed. Johnson briefed Western diplomats on her November 17-18 visit to Eritrea and her lengthy meeting with Isaias. She said Isaias promised UNICEF total access to the country for the purposes of conducting a nutrition survey and providing blanket supplementary feeding.”
After a week of saying that there was no damage from the volcano to human life, shabait.com updated its report a week later to include the following:
“…according to reports, 7 people have died while 3 people have sustained injuries due to the eruption. The inhabitants of the area have been moved to safer locations while at the same time they’re given basic provisions.”
It is not clear from the shabait.com report who its sources are for its “…according to reports.” In other words, shabait seems unclear about the number of people who died or sustained injuries, but it is very sure that the people were moved and were being given attention and care by their government.
The next day, the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization (RSADO), an Eritrean opposition organization based in the Afar area, issued a press release announcing that the volcano had killed 7 people, injured many others and displaced thousands, and appealed to the International community to intervene with humanitarian aid. RSADO claimed that the Eritrean regime had “evacuated hundreds of its soldiers from the area one day ahead of the eruption however [they did not give] advanced notice to the inhabitants nor did [the government] evacuate them to safety.” (bracketed comments in original report.)
The shabait.com reference to the 7 people who died and the 3 people who were injured appears to be something it has no knowledge of: there is no specificity to the report, they do not have names, gender or age. We expect RSADO to issue the follow-up to its report, as it appears it has more information about people, while the Eritrean regime seems to be certain of one thing and one thing only: that the government is helping the people. It seems as if the the Eritrean regimes source is RSADO’s statement, and it would not admit to that openly.
But even on the matter of who is resettled and who isn’t, the Eritrean regime seems to be uncertain as today’s report shows:
Reports indicated that a number of displaced nationals have opted to settle in the administrative areas of Alale and Wadie , South Denkalia sub-zone , as well as the Afambo administrative area in Central Denkalia.
Like all totalitarian regimes, the Eritrean regime has a strong affinity to lying. It lies when it claims there are no political prisoners in Eritrea; it lies when it claims there is freedom of speech in Eritrea; it lies when it claims that the government is supported by nearly everyone; it lies when it invents reasons and justifications to hold people in detention forever. It lies about wars it is losing, and peace it is not winning. It lies about the malnutrition and famine rates in Eritrea. None of these are surprising because they are self-serving lies. What is unclear is why the regime would lie or withhold information about natural disasters for which it bears no responsibility.