(First published in PEN International; April, 04, 2016)

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When they start working, state journalists are immediately forced to master the unwritten laws of the Ministry of Information. This trend is self-perpetuating, cultivating a reliably obedient body that ensures continuity. The Ministry hires journalists mainly from the army or from the pool of high-school graduates who have not attended college. College graduates who have gone through journalistic training are immediately forced to compromise their professional integrity or are coerced into “unlearning” ethical and journalistic standards in order to survive.

News reporting is centralized with little or no autonomy. The national news agency, ERINA, produces what passes as national news, and translates international news from cherry-picked media outlets. Without any adjustment of wording for different media outlets, the exact same news simultaneously appears in all official organs of print and broadcast media on the same day, even when communicated in different languages. Even the least important local news is sifted through tight filters. Ali Abdu, who served as Minister of Information for about 10 years before he fled the regime in 2012 (after successfully institutionalizing thought control and fear), at one point was approving every news item before it was published. Click here to read the whole article from PEN International.

(First published in The Athens News; June 22, 2016)

The article is on the last basketball game and historical victory of the Cleveland Cavaliers and does not mention Donald Trump. (Oops! I already did, but this should be the last mention.)

 A Little Background

A native of Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa, I have lived about four years in United States. One of the constant reminders of being away from home is the complete shift in sports language and (un)learning new games. The first shock is using “football” to refer to what I have called all my life “American football.” As a form of bold defiance, I insist on calling it “American football” and am still resisting the use of “soccer” to refer to football.

In countries other than the United States, non-American football is the most popular game and the main subject of casual conversation. Yet the wildly popular World Cup and matches involving the English Premiere League, and Spanish and Italian La Liga, are barely discussed in the U.S.Continue reading

(First published in English PEN; May 3, 2016)

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Today, on World Press Freedom Day, the director of PEN Eritrea in Exile shares his experience of life as a journalist in Eritrea, the country ranked worst in the world (180th) for press freedom in a report by Reporters without Borders.

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In Kafka’s classic psychological novel The Trial, unidentified authorities suddenly show up one morning and inform Joseph K. that he’s under arrest. Mr. K. proclaims his innocence and tells a lengthy story in his own defence. Unfortunately, in this repressive world, the very fact of an arrest renders one guilty. A seemingly never-ending, nonsensical court case follows. Throughout, K. is never officially charged or even aware of the charges against him. K.’s sense of self and well-being is systematically destroyed by the incessant harassment and the torment of constantly being watched by anonymous authorities.

In the modern Eritrean media-scape, one faces similar hazards, including constant fear and uncertainty. Journalists carry the gut-churning knowledge that they could be found guilty merely by association and/or friendship, facing severe punishment without a trial. Click here to read the article from English PEN.

(First Published in The Guardian; August 19, 2015)

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Eritrea has become one of the world’s worst offenders for human rights abuses over the last decade, imprisoning the third highest number journalists – after China and Iran.

Those writers who remain face stringent censorship in a media climate characterised by the monotonous recycling of official information put out by a paranoid government.

In response to these conditions, Eritrean journalists in exile set up PEN Eritrea, an organisation to connect this inaccessible country and the outside world, and to campaign on behalf of the country’s imprisoned journalists, many of whom have been jailed for more than a decade without contact with their families. Click here to read the article from The Guardian.

(First published in PEN International; Dec. 10, 2015)

 

Even though I believe I am in a secure space, I feel eternally tied to my home country. Each day I am reminded of being out of place. Carrying the badge of “legal alien” or “asylee” – not to mention the acute lack of familiarity and sense of belonging – I keep telling myself that I have a better home waiting for me, perhaps somewhere else.

But with every change of address, city and zip code, the concept of “home” also becomes more fluid. Now “home” has been reduced to my mailing address. Although exile guarantees security and safety, as a writer I’ve found that it does not necessarily present the best opportunity to produce better work.

The new space is a source of disillusionment. The new freedom to write and the sudden abolishing of the censorship yoke, might give momentary high, but for me it remains characterised by estrangement. Click here to read the whole article published in PEN International.

(First published in Africa is A Country; June 9, 2015)

Having lived all my life in Eritrea, I left the country in January 2012. Some European countries have recently claimed the situation in Eritrea has improved in order to justify accepting less Eritrean refugees. I wanted to share my firsthand experience of what daily life is like in Eritrea – a country with the highest ratio of imprisoned journalists that does not allow international media. Yesterday, a new report from the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea said “It is not law that rules Eritreans – but fear.”

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National ceremonies to distract from a grim reality

Eritrea is a country engaged in continuous cycles of ceremonies. The Independence Day celebration (May 24) goes on for about ten days in which the whole country shuts down and the media continuously broadcast footage of the armed struggle. It is followed by Martyr’s Day (June 20) and then a ten days long National Festival. After the festival comes the Commemoration of the Armed Struggle (September 1). Those nationalistic holidays are coupled with Christian and Muslim holidays; all are broadcast live on the national TV station. Click here to continue reading the article from Africa is A Country.

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(First published in Arteidolia; March 2016)

Why jail a poet?” asks Randee Silv as she discusses the case of Qatari poet Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, who had been targeted by the tyrannical rule of his country. [Fortunately the poet was later released.]

Why do tyrants jail poets? The answer is simple: they can’t stand any deviation from their prescribed world outlook. Characteristically, all dictatorial regimes become increasingly intolerant of any sound, image or phrase that reveals even the slightest hint of defiance.

Let me elaborate on this in the context of Eritrea, my homeland.

To set the scene: Eritrea is listed as the last country (No. 180) on Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 World Press Freedom Index and the most censored country on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’s 2015 list. It “is the least connected country on earth”; only 1 percent of Eritreans have access to the Internet (and even then, with a very slow dial-up connection). In addition, Eritrea is the “worst jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa,” and the world’s worst abuser of due process” according to CPJ. Many journalists have been incarcerated incommunicado for more than 14 years.Continue reading

(First published in Africa is A Country; Sept. 24, 2015)

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Borderlines (2015) is Michela Wrong’s debut novel. Taking the perspective of a British narrator named Paula, it tells the tale of a newly-independent fictitious African nation named North Darrar, which relapses into border conflict with its neighbour. Although the country is never mentioned, Wrong’s North Darrar looks very much like the real African nation of Eritrea. The story very much seems like a fictionalized account of events and anecdotes that took place in Eritrea in the last decade, events which Wrong has written extensively on in other publications.Continue reading

(First published in Agenda for International Development Oct. 23, 2015)

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A man reading the newspaper at the caravanserraglio in Asmara. Photo: © Andrea Moroni.

 

Eritrea has increasingly being known as a place of repression and tragedies in the global media, especially after the Lampadusa shipwreck disaster in October 2013. Some have dubbed the country “Africa’s North Korea” for its worst human rights record among nations, while Eritrean local refer to it as a place “where it is only safe to talk about football.”Continue reading

 

(First published in Arteidolia; June 2016)

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Predictably, Eritrea has hit the bottom list (#180), two years in row, in World Press Freedom Index in a report compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Compounding to the absolute information control and monotonous recycling of propaganda are centralization of the arts or abating independent artists through ubiquitous censorship. Enough has been written about the media and centralization of information; therefore, I will share my firsthand account of how the body of arts and censorship operate.Continue reading