The Horn of Africa nation Eritrea won a dubious award this week: the world’s most censored nation. The list of the world’s 10 worst countries was put together by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Eritrea fought off tough competition from North Korea, Syria, Iran, Equatorial Guinea, Uzbekistan, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Belarus to win this uncoveted award. The CPJ research is based on 15 benchmarks, including blocking of websites, restrictions on electronic recording and dissemination, the absence of privately owned or independent media, and restrictions on journalist movements.
Eritrea has allowed no foreign journalists in since 2007 and domestic media are tightly controlled in a dictatorship lasting 20 years since has achieved independence after a bloody war with Ethiopia. Domestic media are controlled by the government and the Orwellian Ministry of Information direct every detail of coverage. CPJ quoted an exiled journalist who said every time they had a story the Ministry arranged interview subjects and gave instructions on the news angle. Eight journalists from Eritrea are on CPJ’s Journalist Assistance Program which supports exiled journalists who cannot be helped by advocacy alone.
The country’s president Isaias Afewerki
, who has ruled since independence, dominates coverage which is universally positive. The media had no idea how to react when Afewerki had a health scare recently so reported nothing for several weeks. Intense rumour-mongering filled the vacuum. Opposition websites and social media commented on the fact president had not appeared on television for nearly a month and speculated on whether he had died.
(photo of Afewerki: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)
On 29 April, Information Minister Ali Abdu told the BBC
he saw Afewerki every day and the 66-year-old president was “in robust health.” A day later Afewerki went on television to dispel the rumours
. “I do not have any kind of sickness,” he said and accused those peddling such rumours of being “sick” and said they were indulging in psychological warfare to “disturb” the people.
The real psychological warfare is being conducted by a government suspicious of its own people. Spies routinely report opinions in the street and even intimidate their opponents abroad
. Internet service providers are required to connect to the web through government-operated EriTel. While Eritrea’s journalists in exile run diaspora websites from London, Houston and Toronto, domestic Internet access is only affordable for the elite. In 2011 Eritrea planned to implement mobile Internet capability but as the social media impact on the Arab Spring became widely known, Afewerki abandoned the idea.
His government has become increasingly paranoid as the country slowly becomes an international pariah. The UN Security Council imposed sanctions
on Eritrea in 2009 for its support of Al Shabaab and insurgents fighting Somalia’s transitional government. The UN resolution also references a longstanding border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti and demanded Eritrea cease “arming, training, and equipping armed groups that aim to destabilize the region or incite violence and civil strife in Djibouti.”
Eritrea’s friendlessness has allowed another longstanding enemy make incursions into its territory. In March, the Guardian
reported Ethiopia had attacked Eritrea for the first time in a decade with few repercussions. Ethiopia’s forces carried out a dawn raid in what it called a successful attack against military targets. Ethiopia claimed Eritrea used the military base to train an Ethiopian rebel group which has killed foreigners
The Guardian put the lack of international attention to the border incursion down to Afewerki whom it called “a piece of work”. It quoted a Wikileak cable
by then US ambassador to Eritrea, Ronald McMullen, which said Afewerki was an unhinged dictator and his regime controlled every aspect of Eritrean society. Media censorship is a key part of that control and the reason why the “award” for the most censored country is not as frivolous as it sounds. As far back as 2005 Reporters Without Borders
described Eritrea as a “black hole for news”. And as the San Francisco Chronicle
says, no one cares. Seven years later nothing has yet emerged from Afewerki’s vortex.