(Published in Africa is A Country; March 11th, 2019)

Ilhan Omar, the Somali-American congresswoman from Minneapolis, has been in the headlines lately for calling out Israel’s influence on US foreign policy and for her grilling of Donald Trump’s Venezuela envoy, the war criminal Elliot Abrams. Less well covered has been her venturing into the United States’s policy on Africa.

At the beginning of March Omar joined a US Congressional Committee led by Rep. Karen Bass to visit Eritrea. Others in the delegation included Eritrean-American congressman Joe Neguse of Colorado.

Karen Bass is chairperson of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, so this clearly was a high level affair.

That the visit happened may have been largely a consequence of changing geopolitics and conflicting interests of the superpowers in the Horn of Africa; buying time for Eritrea’s Life-President Isaias Afwerki and his regime, in power for 27 years already. It is unclear who will benefit from the visit by the US delegation: the US, the Eritreans or even Eritrea’s more powerful neighbor, Ethiopia. Afwerki’s regime has been shunned by the US and subjected to sanctions.

We doubt that the visit will receive the kind of scrutiny Omar’s remarks about Israel have received in US media. In a tweet, Omar described the visit as the “the first American delegation to Eritrea in decades.” It was the first in fourteen years. But the US may be following its chief ally in the region, Ethiopia. Click here to read the article.

(Published in African Arguments; February 13, 2018)

Musicians in Eritrea used to have to sing the government’s praises to pass the censors. Now there are other ways to get heard.

Screenshot from Aytitehamel, by Eseyas Debesay and the Yohannes sisters.

In 2005, Eritrean singer Ghirmay Andom had just completed his latest album. As required by the government, he submitted the lyrics to his ten songs to the censorship office (officially known as “evaluation unit”) in the Ministry of Information.

The artist was hopeful that his uncontroversial songs of love and life would pass the censors and that he would be allowed to start distributing it. But when he finally heard back, all his lyrics had been rejected. Along with some more nitpicking comments, he was informed that: “When the country is facing lots of adversaries, it is unjustifiable to consistently sing about romance”.

Andom’s experience was far from unique. The government in Asmara has long tried to maintain a close control on artistic expression. It not only shut down the independent press in September 2001, but has also imposed a medieval practice of censorship on literature, art and music.

Before being able to broadcast or print their work, artists have had to endure long waiting periods to hear from the censorship unit, which consisted of a single official. Artists would not dare submit anything sensitive, and gaining approval was effectively reduced to appealing to the personal tastes of the censorship chief. Click here to continue

(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 Arteidolia; June 2016)

yonaton1

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