To commemorate Human Rights Day, PEN International and PEN Centres are launching an essay series and holding events on human rights issues across the globe.
Eritrea: Forget “rights” and speak of duties and responsibilities
Abraham T. Zere*
The concept of “rights” doesn’t meaningfully exist in the state vocabulary of today’s Eritrea. The idea has been replaced by “duty and responsibility.” The state media apparatus constantly pounds into citizens the need to carry out their duties rather than wasting time by asking about rights.
For insight, try googling without quotes <expressed readiness, shabait.com> (Shabait is the government’s official news organ) and skim the headlines. Alternatively, enter keywords such as “duty” or “responsibility” and look at the results. Then enter “rights.” The latter search mostly produces results in relation to the website’s “copyrights”.
Although the comprehensive repression applies to all sectors, let’s pick, say, “freedom of expression.” Eritrea has been ranked by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as the “most censored country in the world” (2015 and 2019). It anchored the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ annual survey of Press Freedom Index for 10 consecutive years (2007-2017). All independent media have been banned in Eritrea since September 2001 and those outlets’ editors have been kept in incommunicado detention since then. The country gradually slipped into a boundless abyss, expelling all international correspondents, banning NGOs and barring civil society organisations, effectively keeping the populace in total isolation.
Poet and editor Amanuel Asrat, one of the journalists detained during the 2001 crackdown
This grim reality created a new, tightly repressed world for Eritreans. Resistance was reduced to refraining from applauding the state’s irrational policies. Remaining silent and even the very act of staying in the country rather than fleeing (the regime’s repressive policies force many to flee and it is tacitly encouraged as many in power benefit from the complex racket of human trafficking) are now practically the only forms of dissidence.
The flight of much of Eritrea’s productive human capital has emptied it at an alarming pace. A group photo could not be reproduced a few weeks later since it would undoubtedly be missing some of its former subjects, who would either have fled, disappeared or been forcibly removed. This is even more pronounced on state TV, with any footage showing incarcerated, exiled former state officials or artists prohibited. The ranks of personalities joining such lists have soared to such a level that hardly any clip can be played without being heavily doctored.
Fear has been institutionalised. Words have lost their original meanings. Direct communication has become nearly impossible in the face of comprehensive online and offline surveillance. In this vacuum, a new coded language with double metaphors has developed. While the regime has brutally squashed all communications inside the country, it has employed another means to silence independent voices in the far-flung Eritrean diaspora. Aggressive, coordinated trolling, character assassination and threats are widely deployed. When unable to deter criticism through such methods, the Ministry of Information will respond more directly. When I published an article in Al Jazeera English in July 2017, Eritrea’s Ministry of Information issued an official response dismissing me as “a notorious author who routinely engages in a smear campaign against the country.”
Even physical attacks by the regime’s supporters aren’t out of bounds, as seen in November 2018 in the case of Martin Plaut, a former BBC journalist who writes on Eritrea extensively, and again in November 2019 with exiled Eritrean journalist Amanuel Eyasu. Both incidents took place in London. Among the regime toadies, the hooligans who mount such attacks have been hailed as heroes, while the Eritrean embassy in the UK has not condemned the actions.
For the last two decades, the Eritrean regime has used the unsettled border conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia as its sole excuse for brutally repressing its populace. The historic peace deal with Ethiopia that crowned Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with the Nobel Peace Prize raised hopes that the situation in Eritrea would begin to improve. Those hopes have since sputtered. No redress for the country’s most outstanding issues has occurred. No action on the release of thousands of prisoners of conscience, no implementation of the ratified constitution, no restoration of the indefinite national service to its statutory 18-month limit, no resumption of import and export businesses, no construction permits, no release of incarcerated journalists or allowance of a free press… none of these longstanding issues have been addressed.
The brief opening of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border enabled many nationals to snatch a glimpse of the outside world. Many Eritreans quickly realised that President Isaias Afwerki was attempting to prolong his power. Having eliminated the border tension, seen the lifting of longstanding U.N. sanctions and been allowed to join the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, Afwerki is emboldened more than ever.
In November 2018, several months after Eritrea and Ethiopia signed the peace deal, the president sat with the local media for an interview. Even in his usual comforting interview-cum-lecture format, in which he only addresses pre-approved questions, Afwerki ranted incoherently about global dynamics. The second part of that interview had been advertised to address domestic issues. One year and a month has elapsed since then, and Eritreans are still waiting for it.
The ending of hostilities with Ethiopia, however, did open other possibilities. Two diaspora-based TV stations began broadcasting to Eritrea via satellite dishes. The information monopoly thus had been revoked, and the populace started to communicate horizontally. This represents a major threat to a regime that has enjoyed total information control, surviving mainly by instilling fear and keeping citizens in isolation. Finally enjoying unmediated communication, Eritreans inside the country discovered that contrary to how the state media had been portraying the situation, the majority of the Eritrean diaspora realised and felt the pain of compatriots inside the country.
This opened the door to citizen journalism where nationals could bravely feed truth to opposition media outside the country, while others could start bypassing restrictions by distributing pamphlets, drawing graffiti, and boldly calling for an end to the regime.
Now the Eritrean regime, growing ever more nervous, is trying to quash such moves, arbitrarily arresting citizens on wild conspiracy charges and suspicions. At this stage, anyone who does not publicly declare support for the state’s irrational acts and express his or her adoration for the president will potentially be considered an opponent.
In a series of recent roundups that has targeted the arts and media community, many Eritreans have been summarily imprisoned. According to the information I have received, none of them have been brought before an independent court, and many remain in incommunicado detention. A few lucky ones have fled to Ethiopia and other neighbouring countries.
Can such repression continue forever? History says otherwise.
*Abraham T. Zere is executive director of PEN Eritrea in exile, whose work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Al Jazeera English, Mail & Guardian, among others. Follow him on Twitter @abraham_zere