The culture is in the hands of those who toe the line

Biased and centrally controlled news reporting, poor professional knowledge, endemic resignation amongst journalists and misleading directives—this is how author and journalist Abraham T. Zere describes the media climate in Eritrea. What happens when journalists and authors have just two alternatives—to kowtow to the ruling party or flee the country?

April 8 2015 Text: Abraham T. Zere

I do not think I am required to cite sources and provide empirical facts for this particular article. It is my lived experience and that of all Eritreans who are still living on the margins or have safely left the country.

Eritrean political elites have, to a great extent, effectively controlled and silenced freedom of expression through tight censorship and fear of persecution. The country, characterized by state-owned print and broadcast media, centralized economy, lack of parliamentary elections, and suppression of all human rights, is listed as the worst country in regards to freedom of expression. Censorship and media control have been ordained in the country for generations before its independence. Only twice did the country witness brief periods of relatively free media practices and independent newspapers. The first was during the British occupation period (1941-1951), the years when political parties had the first practice of independent media to debate their political views in the newspapers that were widely read. The second was the heyday of the private newspapers that lasted between 1997-2002. In 1996, the Government of Eritrea passed a law, legalizing private ownership of media, which slowly opened the door for privately owned newspapers and magazines. The 1996 free-press law, however, banned all private broadcasting and required licenses for journalists and newspapers. The law barred foreign ownership of media and required all publications to have a permit from the Ministry of Information prior to publication. Soon many newspapers and magazines appeared, catering to a wide range of political, cultural, social, and entertainment interests. Some of them were short-lived and discontinued for lack of means while eight lasted until the final ban on September 18, 2001. Private newspapers were banned after the political crackdown that resulted in the imprisonment of the reformist group. A few days after the ban on private newspapers, 12 editors and some freelance journalists were detained. Following in the footsteps of the reformist group, they were taken to maximum security prison camps in which, according to reports by the Committee to Protecting Journalists (CPJ) and Amnesty International, some of them are believed to have died of poor treatment and lack of medication. This period opened a new phase in the Eritrean mediascape that signaled the end of freedom of expression and another phase of tight censorship and zero tolerance.

Following the ban on private newspapers in September 2001, the Ministry of Information issued a decree to the printing houses in the country not to publish anything without a permit letter from the ministry. Since then all books, albums, films, posters, night club ads - anything to the level of a one page pamphlet to be distributed, have to go through the censorship unit of the Ministry of Information. There is a lack of clear guidelines, apart from the very fluid directive of any material that could be a threat to national security or “violates the culture”, with the ministry serving as threshold guardian and protector of the nation. “Tewelde”, a film director and video-clip producer remarks on the humiliating and ransacked artistic life in Eritrea that hampers good artistic production. In order for work to reach the audience, apart from the main works that entail film production, it has to wait at least two years in line at the censorship office. Apart from clerical supporting staff, the office is run by one person and it all depends on his personal judgment and discretion to release any production. As Tewelde describes it, before production the script of a film has to get a permit for shooting, a process that takes about a year. Depending on the feedback from the office, if it goes smooth after production, it then has to wait in line for another year after all the technical works. By then the theme becomes so obsolete and the chief censor always comes up with scenes and shots that need to be excluded, not to mention the budget. Although most of the artists have learned the unwritten laws and know the taste of the chief censor, the worst part is “productive censorship” –when the censor office gives some suggestions to be incorporated in the artistic production, especially lyrics and fictitious works. As the office approves all publishable materials and productions with long waiting times, it takes about a month for a film poster to get a permit.

The tight media control and censorship does not only apply to private productions but immensely influences the government media journalists as well. The existence of governmental or non-governmental bodies to restrain dissemination of information takes different forms. In addition to the obvious practice of harassment, intimidation, and persecution, other means include ignoring, demotion, and ripping off the little benefits journalists get.

Highly centralized news reports, lack of professionalism, disillusionment of journalists, inadequate directives that lead to trial and error and severe punishment characterizes the Eritrean media. “Haile” who worked from 1997-2011 as an editor for local and international news in the national newspaper, explains it is mainly the reign of fear that the ministry runs. From the first time he joined the ministry as staff on the international news desk of the national newspaper, he did not receive any instructions about coverage. Haile explains the convention of the international news reports is usually through trial and error with the fluid diplomatic stance of Eritrea.

With the natural selection of misfits and conformists, the Ministry of Information prioritizes undertrained, high school graduates over college graduates who have acquired professional training. The profession is left at the hands of the mediocre with the watchful involvement of the national security that all journalists who attempted to report the truth end up in prisons. Those who were recruited mainly for their lack of qualification would later be promoted and hold critical posts, and in turn will also recruit another round of journalists with similar lack of professionalism. As those who have gained professional training and try to practice their education immediately re-bounce, the system then absorbs only those who are ready to compromise their professional integrity.

As journalists of the Ministry of Information have been taken into custody repeatedly and only released suddenly without charges, this has created an atmosphere of fear among the local journalists. Hence, at the cost of professionalism and accurate reports, whole staff members are only concerned with their safety. It is also a common practice in the country for an official in any post to call the editor or the journalist to intimidate him/her if anything is reported against the particular office.

Slowly the practice of censorship, media attention and praises has created a new body of interconnected mediocrity and a culture of conformity. A trend has developed where most of the government bodies, and companies, are measured through the praises they receive in media coverage. In order to secure this the managers of the companies and administrators of the zone and sub-zones started a collective, and campaign to recruit journalists who would come and give them coverage in the national media. Naturally the “embedded” journalists who take such initiatives would be the lower ranking and mechanical journalists. No matter their pieces, (after all, creativity and accuracy counts very little in such a state of mechanical production with readily available templates) the media coverage would start from the top management. Then, they can be praised or promoted immediately and the media coverage becomes evidence to showcase to the public that they are doing better than their counterparts in other places. The so-called “correspondent” sent to the zones and administrative regions (far from the capital) becomes the most popular personality whose reports would serve as a lifeline to the whole administrative region. Thus, they will have VIP treatment by the administrators and would get every benefit the administrative zones and some of the companies based there can offer.

This whole intertwined and humiliating system of censorship and media control created an environment best captured in a W. B. Yeats’ poem. Yeats in his widely read poem, “The Second Coming” says, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Similarly, the best journalists and artists of the country lack the motivation to go through the tedious process. Therefore, it is now left in the hands of the mediocre pseudo-artists who can conform to the system, leaving the journalists and writers to compromise, stay hibernated, or flee the country at all costs.