(First published in Arteidolia; June 2016)
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.
The Eritrean government effectively employs the arts, mainly in the form of music, to romanticize the grim, tyrannical regime. Artists in the country are either conscripted members of the army or are classified as civil servants in the Cultural Affairs Bureau, the ruling party’s organ. Cultural troupes from the army or party perform on national holidays and as part of government campaigns. Cultural shows celebrate all the national holidays and numerous events commemorating the liberation of major historical spots during the armed struggle. The performances typically are patriotic songs or mechanically produced art works celebrating the government and nation.
The National Holidays Coordinating Committee, which operates under the Office of the President, closely monitors, approves and sponsors artistic productions for different national holidays including Fenkil Operation (Feb. 14); Independence Day (May 24); Martyrs’ Day (June 20); the National Festival (August); Commemoration of the Armed Struggle (Sept. 1), etc. In order for selected, exclusively patriotic songs and musicals of similar themes to be performed in those events using playbacks, the artists and their work must pass through a strict filtering process. First the artists must submit a draft of their artwork to their respective branch – for example, the executive committee of their cultural troupe. Then, in a second round of censorship, the Cultural Affairs Bureau uses a committee to evaluate and comment on the artwork.
Selected works that have gone through this process are presented to the highest body of National Holidays Coordinating Committee, which includes top party officials and ministers. Even though this committee is mainly comprised of political appointees from different ministries, without experience in the arts, they comment extensively on these artistic productions. They might suggest changes, deletions or additions in lyrics, while theatrical dramas might have dialogue or plots significantly changed. Finally, the executive committee monitors the dress style of the singers who will perform on the occasion, including arranging an audience to cheer the performances.
The only meaningful person who evaluates these performances is the President, Isaias Afwerki, who never misses an official event. TV cameramen and editors make sure to chronicle his attendance, with nearly every other shot showing the Man watching the performance. When the President nods approval or applauds, that’s considered an important endorsement of the artist, which can open the door to attractive opportunities.
The very few independent artists who are not members of the aforementioned organs are similarly controlled through censorship practices that are among the strictest seen so far in the 21st century. One single person, working in an office officially known as the “Evaluation Unit” of the Ministry of Information, approves or rejects every bit of material before it’s recorded, published and/or distributed in the country. The office, installed in 2002-2003 has been supervised by different chief-censors of the Ministry, most of whom are at best indifferent to the arts.
Making things even worse, there’s a lengthy waiting period before approval – almost two years for films and books. Naturally, half of the creativity in art, entertainment and literature is lost in self-censorship. Over time this system has effectively silenced even the least talented, mechanical independent artists.
When the censorship unit’s window does open randomly (it remains closed most of the time for filing new works) for accepting books, music and films, many writers, musicians and filmmakers will rush to seek a permit for their manuscripts or copies of works produced out of the country. Producers are required to have permits for their film scripts or lyrics in order to shoot or record. Although most manuscripts pass through tight revisions on the first stage, they are required to go through a second phase. The very same texts or works that have been approved after repeated revisions to the extent of no longer resembling the original work are once again examined with new eyes and close scrutiny. Some songs that previously had won approval are arbitrarily removed from albums in the second phase, and likewise, scenes that seemed OK in the first round of scrutiny end up being reshot, or scenes of films that already have been heavily edited most go through yet another edit, or be reshot entirely.
Artists who have beaten down by this system over the years generally know not to submit sensitive materials, but even with non-sensitive materials, the chief censor will provide his own personal suggestions to be included. With even supposedly safe topics in songs, for example, the chief censor sometimes will add stanzas to lyrics. For lack of any sensitive material to be censored, the unit eventually evolved into a semi-official advisory and art-critic bureau. I remember an incident where the censor chief provided extensive stanzas into most of the lyrics for an album to be recorded. Bewildered by his audacity to interject as such, the producer jokingly asked him if she can put his name as co-writer of the lyrics.
Frequently, pages or chapters are ordered removed from translated books and other writing. Under the Ministry’s semi-official policy, every album must feature at least one patriotic song. This unwritten rule was institutionalized in 2004 after Ali Abdu’s—the longest serving and most brutal propaganda chief, who later sought asylum in Australia—hit squad savagely attacked one of the best albums of that year for failing to feature a patriotic song. In order to have their works approved, most artists have no choice but to accept those terms.
Published in Arteidolia June, 2016: <http://www.arteidolia.com/eritrea-art-production-tale-censorship-control-abraham-zere/#sthash.CZ2iv2IV.dpuf>