Isaias Shrugged: And The State Media Nodded Its Head

A powerful title that authoritarians have, rivaling that of their role as Chief Commanding Officer of the armed forces, is that they are also the State’s Chief Epistemology Officer. Epistemology is the science which tries to answer the question “how do we know that what we think we know is true?” Authoritarians have one answer: truth is what I say it is. But wouldn’t the little people reject lies, as it would be so transparent? Hitler had an answer to this: he said, “The primitive simplicity of their minds [the masses] renders them a more easy prey to a BIG LIE than a small one, for they themselves often tell little lies, but would be ashamed to tell big lies.”  Or, as my daughter’s favorite TV character, Dr. House, says, “everybody lies.” I was thinking of all this, while listening to a 6-hour interview of Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki, on the eve of New Years Day, conducted by Eri-TV’s Suleiman Osman Abbe.

I was, of course, also thinking: why am I doing this? Ah, I remember now: you know that section of the resume where they ask you to list things you have done to give back to the community? Until I develop the selflessness to volunteer in a soup kitchen and feed the homeless I think this will have to do: I gave up 6 hours of my life so I can serve you, you ungrateful readers, and give you a digest of what was said. But more selfishly, since Eritrea has no constitution, no political parties, no elections and no parliament, the president’s New Year Interview is about as close as we can get to divine what will happen in 2012. These interviews are also a great opportunity for me to polish my Tigrigna and improve my fluency in Higdefese. Try this: “Regardless of the military adventurism (wetehaderawi enderatat) of the superpowers (le’Eli Hayal), if we have a special focus (fluy qolahta) on the big picture (iti Abi si’eli), our road map (godena karta) and our compass (bosela), and if we just discard the keywords (mefateh Kalat) of supply and demand (teleb qereb), we know that without a good fiscal (fiscalawi) policy and sustainable (zelaqi) economic growth and performance (adma’Enet), what will result is societal polarization (mtfnan),  an offshoot (chaleda) of lack of equitable distribution of resources (tsegatat), made worse by speculators (awaka’ati)—it is all a zero sum (dmr bado) game, progress in name only (smawi), and our subsidies (degoma) are an imperfect but best of our choices (hryat)”. Of course, Isaias says this in droning tone, and he is so incapable of being succinct and he is weak in resisting the urge to not pursue every thought bubble that pops in his head, his speeches should come with <tangent> </off tangent> warnings. This is why it takes him 20 minutes to answer one question, but I am getting ahead of myself.

How do you summarize a 6-hour interview which seems to have been produced by Xanax to supplement their sleeping pill? Here’s how I intend to provide the digest: it will be in parts. And since I never read serialized articles (Part 1, Part 2, Part 27), I don’t expect you to do that either. So I will try to trick you by giving you one heading (Isaias Shrugged:) followed by a changing subheading every time. “Isaias Shrugged” (yes it is stolen from Atlas Shrugged) because Isaias has reached the pinnacle of power where he feels completely un-threatened and bored by it all. There is a danger that some of you “I-browse-but-I-don’t-read” folks will think you have already read a new article you haven’t read, or you will lie and say you did/didn’t read it when you actually didn’t/did, but that’s ok because in the words of Dr. House: “It’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies. The only variable is about what.”

Isaias Shrugged And The State Media Nodded Its Head

Some Eritreans cannot understand why some of us were such enthusiastic supporters of the short-lived Eritrean private press (September 2000 – September 2001.) The critics miss the point when they mention how the reporters were “accomplices” to the regime until 2000, how they themselves were marinated in PFDJ culture, or whatever. Their biggest achievement was to break through the PFDJ culture (carried forward from EPLF) of creating a bubble where only the PFDJ hierarchy got to define what truth or reality is. To repeat something I am sure I have mentioned before, advanced cultures and primitive cultures have vastly different definition of what epilepsy is: one says it is an unusually hyperactive electrical activity in the brain, and another says it’s possession by evil spirits. Within each bubble, the authority figures—the medical doctor in advanced societies and the witch doctor in primitive societies—are totally certain of their diagnosis.  It is their reality, their truth.

The reason it was critically important to shut down the Eritrean private media was that they were presenting a reality, a truth, far different from the official version. They burst the bubble. In fact, before the Eritrean officials settled on the reason for arresting, exiling and killing them—the always reliable “treason” without evidence allegation—the rationale they were giving was that the private media was introducing “confusion” (hnfishfish) to the poor Eritrean public who presumably prefers uniform but false information (national unity) over diverse but true information (polarization). So the oddity was not that the private press has been made to permanently disappear, but that it was allowed to even exist for a year—which had a lot to do with the then Minister of Information, Beraki Habteselasse, an enlightened guy who has also been made to disappear into Eira Eiro.

So, if you are an Eritrean journalist who works for the State media, who knows of or has heard of people his/her own age who haven’t been heard from in 10 years, and you have nobody and nothing to protect you (no journalist guild, no parliament) from their fate if you deviate even slightly into taboo territory, what are you supposed to do? Your biggest priority, it appears to me, is to know where the red lines are and to stay a few miles away from this electrified red fence. It is to nod your head in agreement to everything that the Epistemologist says.

And if the truth is what Isaias Afwerki says it is, what kind of questions are you allowed to ask without coming even close to the red fence? Simple: you just quote back past statements of Isaias Afwerki (because he and only he defines not just the truth but what are non-taboo subjects) and ask him to clarify them further. He was right then; he is right now; he will be right in the future: no fear of contradictions. After a while, it really resembles the Saturday Night Live skit of The Chris Farley Show. Chris Farley (RIP), hosting a show, asks his guests a series of “remember when….?” questions. That’s it: pure nostalgia. Funny if it is a comedy show, pretty sad for a serious interview with the head of state.

This is not criticism of the interviewer Suleiman Osman Abbe who probably would be, in a free society, a great interviewer. Just the bubble he is forced to live in:

Kbur president, this is what you said last year referencing the period between the end of the Cold War and the financial meltdown, tell us more. Kbur president, what can we expect next based on your analysis? Where is the world headed? Kbur president, this is what you said at the 66th General Assembly of the UN…. Kbur president, this is what you had said after the uprising in North Africa and the Middle East last year.  Kbur president, this is what you said regarding Israel and Palestine. Kbur president, this is what you had said regarding the Horn of Africa, Africa’s Renaissance, IGAD, Somalia, Sudan. Kbur president, this is what our National Charter says about the public and private sector… Kbur president, this is what you said about our mining strategy… Kbur president, according to the white paper you presented at the Cabinet of Ministers, this is what you said about development of infrastructure, food security, education policy, housing, ports, social services, subsidies, human development, restructuring, youth, women….. Kbur president, this is what you said last year on Independence Day….

It is like your kid asking you to read her/him the same bedtime story because new stories may be scary: just lull me to sleep papa Isaias. Tell me everything is going to be fine.

Consider this: Eritrea supposedly has a constitution. Why would the interviewer reference a document, the National Charter (actually the political programme of the ruling party, the PFDJ) which was prepared in 1994 but not cite anything from the National Constitution, which was ratified in 1997, which is more recent? Not just the interviewer: all the mass organizations including YPFDJ will quote the Charter but never the Constitution: why is that? Because the Charter exists and the Constitution doesn’t exist. And who gets to decide what exists and doesn’t exist is the Chief Epistemology Officer (CEO).

When the interviewer is not asking questions that are essentially regurgitation of what has already been said and what the CEO has given a green light by saying it is now safe to talk about them (example: Arabic language in schools), then there is a great deal of trepidation and loading the question in a way that does not get him in trouble. My favorite deals with elections in Eritrea. A straightforward question would be like the one Aljazeera asked: “when will you have national elections in Eritrea?” A more probing question would be, “As Secretary General of the Transitional Government of Eritrea, you had indicated that Eritrea would have a multi-party system, but later on you said that “nobody promises anybody anything in this country” and that we would not be ready for that for 3 decades, maybe more. Can you explain yourself?” Instead, this is what we get from the interviewer: “even opponents concede that if we were to hold elections not once but even 10 times, the PFDJ would prevail. So to deny the opponents the subterfuge of pretending to be democracy advocates, some say we should hold elections….” Talk about a loaded question: who accepts that premise? Who says, in the year 2011, that the PFDJ is assured of a win if it has a free and fair election even once, much less repeatedly?

The electrified red fence is everywhere, even on questions that are asked to “humanize” Isaias Afwerki, but always end up showing him to be, um, different. “How is your health?”  “Do you sleep at all?” Let’s say you noticed, as the interviewer did, that Isaias Afwerki was reading a book for 5 hours straight and that he was highlighting the sections which interest him. You are a journalist: what questions would you ask? Wouldn’t you ask: what was the book you were reading? What kinds of book do you usually like to read? Of course you would. Now think like a journalist who works for the State media and you are not sure if that is an allowed question. What do you ask? You ask: “do you have a message (advice) to Eritreans who do not read and how they can develop the reading habit?” How can they be more like you, O all knowing demi-god?

In case you are wondering, the president’s answer was that he is not prone to dispensing advice. I will now pause to let those of you who follow state media to laugh uproariously.  As to those of you who don’t: a good percentage of the state media reports are about how Isaias Afwerki went on a field trip and dispensed advice—he inspected and gave “directives” to an architect on how to build a bridge or a dam; he gave “agricultural advice” to a farmer…

Pointing this contradiction would be a big taboo. Welcome to the Bubble. A world kid’s gloves and bopping heads doesn’t prepare you for the real world of journalism.  And this is why, outside the bubble of Eri-TV, Isaias Afwerki comes across as a brute, a bully and a fool when he is interviewed by international media.

Next: Isaias Shrugged And The World Rolled Its Eyes


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