(Published in Africa is A Country; May 24, 2017)

Despite all that’s been written and spoken about extreme repression and economic blight in Eritrea, surprisingly little has been publicized about its inscrutable leader, Isaias Afwerki, who has led the country with an iron fist since independence in 1991. Based on common knowledge among Eritreans in the country and other information that I have collected over the years from frequent contacts, I am attempting to profile him.

Having closed all independent media and banned international correspondents, President Afwerki rebuilt the national media to exclusively serve his own interests and ambitions. In regular interviews with the state media, he approves all questions beforehand. In the midst of interviews, he often takes over, addressing a single question with lectures that ramble on for 30 minutes or more. The journalists’ only role is to help him transition between topics and occasionally nod in approval or agreement. Once during a pre-recorded interview, one of the “journalists,” Asmelash Abraha, fell asleep during the president’s long reply. In his regular interviews with the state media, Afwerki talks at leisure and analyzes many world developments. During an interview on the national broadcaster, Eri-TV, journalist, Temesghen Debessai, asked the president questions interchangeably in three languages, Tigrinya, English and Arabic. Afwerki talked about a variety of issues, demonstrating his command of language, history and current events for his Eritrean audience. Click here to read the whole article

(Published in Africa is A Country; March 6, 2017)

Eritrea has expelled all international correspondents and banned local private newspapers since 2001. One consequence is that Western media have had to play up their “unique” or “rare” access to “the North Korea of Africa.”

Over the last two years, some leading media–having gone through endless bureaucratic hassles and rejections–such as the BBC, France 24,  The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times  have covered Eritrea. Some independent journalists have (dis)covered Eritrea too. For many of us who lived our entire lives in the country, of course nothing is nearly revealing apart from their “sensational” stories.  (An exception was the The New Yorker’s coverage in December of a mass defection by members of the Eritrean national team.)

Reporting on Eritrea has reduced into a standard template: it starts with description of how clean and peaceful the capital city, Asmara is (there is also emphasis on its Italian colonial legacy, here reduced to architecture and café culture), inhabited by friendly people. This is usually followed by long descriptions of the palm-tree-lined streets of the capital; disproportionate part on the capital’s art-deco and futuristic buildings; some confused and contradictory notes on the overcrowded cafes (with a note of the recent mass-exodus), visits to the remnants of war tanks near Asmara (linking it with the bloody war of independence) and at last interviewing the usual suspects, media-friendly officials such as Yemane Ghebreab, the ruling party’s political affairs and presidential advisor and the minister of information, Yemane Gebremeskel. The latter two get to dole out their regular scripts of “we are in emergency state and the international community should pressure Ethiopia to demarcate the borders.” 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.