The struggle is between the power of politics and the power of information

In 2001, mass protests broke out in Eritrea after a number of top officials and members of President Isaias Afewerki’s party publicly criticised his autocratic rule and failure to implement democratic reform. What could have led to political change became its antithesis—Aferwerki’s regime clamped down hard on the opposition. The independent press was shut down and dissidents were thrown into jail. Researcher Tesfalem Habte writes about the event and its consequences. 

April 8 2015 Text: Tesfalem Habte

During the country’s independence and the euphoria that ensued, Eritreans were enthusiastic about translating their hard fought liberation into an all-round independence—an independence that, among many other things, embraces freedoms of thought, opinion and expression. This was paralleled with the Eritrean People's Liberation Front's (predecessor of People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ)) political promotion of the President’s infectious charisma.

As it is typically the case with post-independence African politics, there was a bubble of seemingly a vibrant civil society, independent media and political atmosphere, so much so that the Eritrean leadership was dubbed “the beacon of African renaissance”. Yet, it did not take long for the regime to show its true colours by clamping down on journalists, writers and literary figures with a massive purge in 2001.

As the genuine works of writers (authors who work for their people) in the media and literary community aspire to hold the political establishment accountable by enlightening the public, their activities do not sit well with the authoritarian regime’s propaganda mechanisms. This was the case of the independent media in Eritrea prior to the unfortunate events of September 11th, 2001, in the aftermath of which the Eritrean security seized the prints of many newspapers. Most of the journalists have been kept incommunicado since their apprehension, before they were joined by another batch of journalists and noted poets in February 2009.

Despite abundant promises made for the purposes of mobilizing the masses during the armed struggle, the regime in Asmara now leaves no stone unturned to stay in power. Its propaganda machine has fed the public with a sense of insecurity caused by a malicious smear campaign from within the country and outside. Hence, a segment of the youth suspected of enlightening (“inciting” as they put it) the general public were libelled as rebellious and accomplices in undermining the sovereignty and national security of the country. For the independence generation, the promise of a vibrant independent media that would allow freedom of press and expression is still-born.

Typical of similar dictatorial regimes, the PFDJ leadership has managed to create a sense of resentment in the hearts and minds of the public by utilizing a deceptive propaganda that portrays the intelligentsia as the root cause of the curses that have befallen the nation. The propaganda of the regime embarked on destroying the literary and journalistic works in the hope of destroying their authors and readers.

Most of us witnessed the public's divided opinion over the brutality of the security forces against students of the University of Asmara in the summer of 2001. That unfortunate incident of blatant violence was intended to set in motion the collaboration of many university students with the members of the national assembly who, by then, had begun doubting the leadership credentials of the President. National security agents operate with impunity in silencing deviant politicians, writers, journalists, poets and intellectuals, making the country a poster-child for lack of freedom of speech and expression.

Given the current political context in Eritrea, it is beyond imagination for anyone to air their criticisms of the government. It is unfortunate that the country has been labelled “the North Korea of Africa”. For an Eritrean with the experience of growing up under the reign of an intimidating regime, I envied the comparative freedom of expression present in Sudan. I bore witness when many Sudanese took to the streets, rattling, “The people of Sudan are hungry!” in April 2012. In Uganda, a country infamously known for rampant corruption, I bore witness to people taking to the streets to demand their President step down and corrupt officials be held accountable. I noted many newspapers publicising information about corrupt officials, police officers and the government. In China, a country with a massive national security apparatus, I bore witness to the power of information making its pinch felt by party officials. What is your impression of the countries you have been to?

In today’s Eritrea, we live in a system wherein there are rules and regulations for our dreams. The role of literary and journalistic works in inspiring those yearning for freedom of thought and expression has been shattered under the camouflage of existential threat to the very existence of the people and the nation. Also, for the regime’s apologists, freedom of the press is not severely restricted in Eritrea. Many ardent supporters of the regime proudly speak of a few internet cafes in Asmara, Mendefera, Massawa, Keren and Dekemhare. But, in doing so, they forget the bigger picture of the issue. Given the fact that the greater portion of the population is illiterate and resides in rural and semi-urban areas, it is less likely for them to express and exchange their ideas through social media. The print media could have been more effective in penetrating the periphery, but that was not to be. Even for the internet users, it’s not without a psychological fear that a bogyman is watching over them.

In today's Eritrea, most journalists, writers and poets live under the psychological terror of National Security agents. It is not uncommon to see the Ministry of Information offices visited by the lurking security van (“lemlem” as many people have nicknamed it), intended to instil its fear. Journalists are detained at any time and isolated in unidentified locations for months in efforts to silence them. Despite the enthusiasm and hope that existed during the early years of independence, the country has now plunged into an Orwellian-like state wherein the harbouring of a dissident thought is tantamount to committing a heinous crime punishable by a commensurate measure.

Yet, the perseverance and valour of those who have been victims of their intellectual ingenuity instils hope for justice seekers of one day having a democratic Eritrea. We find solace in the fact that the intellectual weapons of those released from prison have not been obliterated and will pioneer a bright dawn in the country as the battle between political power and information power continues.