(Published in The Guardian; Sept. 18, 2016)

Today marks a bleak date in the country’s history, when a paranoid elite began a brutal campaign to cement its grip on power

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Exactly 15 years ago, Eritrea’s hard-won independence was hijacked by a paranoid political elite who have clung to power ever since.

It was on this day in 2001 that President Isaias Afwerki jailed 11 top government officials and banned seven independent newspapers. So started the insidious takeover that has seen the country become a military state, prompting the exodus of Eritreans to Europe we are witnessing today.

State security agents then rounded up and jailed 12 journalists. To this day, none of the detainees have been tried in a court of law, and they remain incommunicado in secret prisons. Their families don’t know if they are alive.

Many civilian posts were taken over by military commanders. The army was stationed in all major towns and cities, and anyone working in the public sector was instructed to report to them. Click here to read the whole story from The Guardian

(Originally published in Index on Censorship; Sept. 16, 2016)

It initially sounded like a joke; gradually it got serious and then tragic. A decade and a half later, it is catastrophe.

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Fifteen years ago on 18 September, 2001, fellow students of University of Asmara and I were confined in two labour camps, GelAlo and Wi’A, for defying a requirement of unpaid summer work. We were kept in the camps, under harsh, atrocious living conditions and open to the weather that normally reaches 45 C (113 F) for about five weeks. As we were preparing to return home, we learned the government had banned seven private newspapers and imprisoned 11 top government officials.

The day after our homecoming, beaten down and demoralised, I went to meet Amanuel Asrat, chief editor of Zemen newspaper. About 10 days before that, he had received an article, in which I detailed our living conditions, that I had managed to get smuggled out of the prison camp. My piece was published in the last issue of the newspaper. Click here to read the original article from Index on Censorship

(First published in PEN Eritrea; Sept. 2, 2016)

Photo Courtesy of (http://www.theeritreanexodus.com/ )

With the Eritrean government’s dismal failure to live up to high expectations, and a hopelessly polarized diaspora community, we’ve reached a vile state where seemingly any casual observer can suddenly turn into an Eritrean expert and even be celebrated among the Eritrean diaspora. This trend, unfortunately, is devolving into self-hate and an unseemly dependency on foreigners. Characteristically, if non-Eritrean appears on the international media or other forums to discuss the Eritrean abysmal situation, subsequently many Eritreans on the opposition camp would change their Facebook profile photo to the person’s the next day. It also goes similar way on the other camp.

The situation can present fertile ground for pseudo-experts to exploit and capitalize on the continued suffering in Eritrea. You can click here to read the original article in PEN Eritrea.Continue reading

(First Published in Global Voices August 4, 2016)

Eritrean diaspora on social media. Photo by Yonatan Tewelde, used with permission.

Eritrean diaspora on social media. Photo by Yonatan Tewelde, used with permission.

A few months ago an Eritrean acquaintance called me to discuss an article he wanted to write for PEN Eritrea’s website. He had worked as a journalist in Eritrea, where we’re both from, before fleeing the country nearly ten years ago.

He had recently spoken out (under a pen name) about his former colleagues who were languishing incommunicado in detention centers in Eritrea, a story that was then covered by various media including The Guardian, in partnership with our organization.Click here to read the whole article from Global Voices.

 

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(An abridged article taken from Index on Censorship Magazine issue 250th; appeared in The Independent June 30, 2016)

Journalist Abraham T. Zere has been identified as a ‘security threat’, and watched his colleagues go to prison. Now exiled in the USA, he reveals the dangers facing writers in the “world’s most censored country”

This is an edited extract from an interview with Eritrean journalist Abraham T. Zere, for Index on Censorship magazine’s 250th issue:

In early 2016, journalists and staff members who held key positions in Eritrea’s ministry of information were required to fill out a detailed personal form, including information on their bank accounts, and where their family lived. The threat to those thinking of leaving the country was clear.

It has been more than 10 years since I stopped working for the ministry of information. In that period, it has evolved into a centre of terror, more militarised than ever and more overtly interfering in journalists’ lives. Click here to read the original article from The Independent.

(First published in The Athens News: August 28, 2016)

Athens is at its best, characterized with endless house parties and a leap forward for most, where everything is looking gay. That is why I do not want to spoil returning students’ mood with an admonishing tone; you already had that in last week’s back-to-school orientations, right?

The Athens air is filled with positive vibes and superlative adjectives such as “awesome,” “incredible,” “super excited,” “terrific,” etc. – those commonly used in Donald Trump’s speeches. Freshmen students are experiencing their first stay away from home (in most cases), and many international students are possibly celebrating their coming to America, rapidly deconstructing the initial image they had of the United States. The process of getting an American entry visa by itself, for many, is as big as graduation.

I have returned back to school after two years and have to go through the mundane (in most cases) first week orientations that I already had first experienced four years ago. Going through all these orientations and email communications, I feel I am either too old, or else, nothing is new. Of course, at the other end, I also feel everything is new. Click here to read the original article from The Athens News.

(First published in The Guardian; April 27, 2016)

An anonymous whistleblower claims to have new proof of human rights abuses, galvanising opposition online

Eritrea has become nicknamed ‘Africa’s North Korea’ in recent years.
Eritrea has become nicknamed ‘Africa’s North Korea’ in recent years. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

In a bid to upend years of secrecy in the country dubbed “Africa’s North Korea”, a new Facebook page is publishing documents claiming to show how the Eritrean government abuses its citizens.

In just two months, SACTISM – Classified Documents of the Dwindling PFDJ has garnered more than 16,000 followers on the social media site by alleging to have new information about human rights violations committed at the hands of president Isaias Afewerki’s ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. Click here to read the article from The Guardian.

(First published in The Athens News; July 6, 2016)

 

Fast forward. The steady process of teaching new tricks to an old dog, unlearning old habits; four years life in America and Athens summarized:

Extremely student-friendly professors compared with the neo-feudal system I experienced back home. Tons of reading materials. “Never ask to challenge students, but test how much they know” philosophy. An obsession about weather. Exceedingly programmed lifestyle where you take half an hour to figure out a 10-minute coffee meeting. New terms and concepts like hookup, one-night stand, three-somes (disclaimer: I am married and never tried any of those, and my wife will also read the article, anyways). An extreme capitalist culture that trickles down to individual levels and entered the linguistic register where a friend offers to “buy coffee,” instead of other terms such as invite, accompany or join. Unlearning old habits such as avoiding conversations with a person next to you in a bar or a coffee-shop, but have your iPhone to check Facebook, text or take selfies (my compliment to a young woman sitting next to me could also be interpreted as “sexual harassment,” lesson learned). The humiliating experience of splitting bills in restaurants where invitation to dinner or lunch does not necessarily mean the person will take care of the bill, but asking you to accompany him/her (sharing is caring as the great Barney says it, right?). Learning to converse at length about pets with strangers in the street (the only way of talking to random people). Abandoning the metric system and start to count in feet, pounds and Fahrenheit (Google is a savior). A system that honors individual liberty (“mind your own business,” how I love it!). Exceptionally friendly assistants/secretaries in most administrative offices (I had terrible experiences with their counterparts back home where they literally bully customers).Click here to read the whole article from The Athens News.

(First published in Music in Africa; May 13, 2016)

This text provides an overview of the Eritrean media, particularly as it relates to the local music industry.

Eritrean Voices show producers in studio. Photo: www.thecitizen.org.au
Eritrean Voices show producers in studio. Photo: www.thecitizen.org.au
 After Eritrea’s independence in 1991, music continued to be used for political reasons – but this time, by Eritrea’s government against its own people. Various bands worked directly under the party’s organs and the army, producing a disproportionate number of songs for the many national holidays that fill up the Eritrean calendar. Only songs produced in this fashion received substantial media airplay. This tradition has resulted in an “echo chamber” in which Eritrean artists produce music that they know the state-controlled media want – despite the songs’ obvious lack of quality, integrity or creativity. Singers are rewarded according to how well their songs are received in the state media and how much airtime they receive. This sort of “success” opens further opportunities for these artists to tour outside the country.

While the state media heavily promotes music that fulfills their own agenda, this does not necessarily improve the quality of productions. With the almost constant playing of patriotic songs on national radio and TV, it’s difficult to gauge how the music is really being received. The public’s continuous exposure to mediocre music results in a limited ability to discern what good-quality music actually is. There’s little or no objective standard for quality music in Eritrea – no knowledgeable music critics, very little musical scholarship and little access to decent, freely-made music from outside the country.Click here to read the whole article from Music in Africa.

(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.