The Horn of Africa nation Eritrea won a very 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 the tough competition of 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 country that has been run as a dictatorship in the 20 years it has achieved independence after a bloody war with Ethiopia. All 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 it was the Ministry who arranged interview subjects and gave instructions on the news angle to follow. Eight journalists from Eritrea are on CPJ’s Journalist Assistance Program which supports exiled journalists who cannot be helped by advocacy alone.
Not surprisingly, the country’s president Isaias Afewerki who has ruled since independence, dominates coverage. Equally unsurprising, the coverage is universally positive. As is the case in all secretive countries, 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)
Finally 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 the government suspicious of its own people. Government spies routinely report opinions in the street and even intimidate their opponents abroad. All 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 government elite. In 2011 the country had plans to implement mobile Internet capability but as the social media impact on the Arab Spring became widely known, Afewerki’s government abandoned the idea.
The Eritrean 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 other insurgents fighting neighbouring 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 in Afar.
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 was very good at controlling all aspects 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.