To date, the Internet is the only space in which Eritreans are free to voice their opinions in a country which President Issaias Afeworki rules with an iron hand. The independent press was wiped off the map in 2001. The state-controlled media merely relay the regime’s ultra-nationalist ideology.
The government has proven reluctant to accept Internet growth, fearing the Web’s potential for disseminating independent information. In this last African country to connect to the Net, in 2000, the penetration rate now hovers around 3.5%, which means that virtually all of the population has been excluded from the digital era.
Telecom operator EriTel, which owns the network’s infrastructure, is directly controlled by the government. The Eritrean Ministry of Information granted a licence to the country’s four Internet service providers from whom EriTel rents its bandwidth. Since EriTel is under the authorities’ orders, network surveillance and slowing down bandwidth speed are easy tasks.
The government has chosen not to increase bandwidth speed – a major technical barrier to connection – which explains why, more than sending e-mails (which can take a very long time) – chat has become the most popular way to communicate. Yahoo Messenger and Facebook’s “chat” function are constantly being used in cybercafés, where connection speeds are particularly slow.
In fact, most of the Eritreans who connect to the Web do so from cybercafés, since they cannot access the Internet from their cell phones. To enjoy private access, netizens need to obtain a high-cost special authorisation from the regime.
Intimidation of netizens: Arrests, blocking tactics, and surveillance
Although the government has not set up any widespread automatic Internet filtering system, it has not hesitated to order the blocking of several diaspora websites critical of the regime. Access to these sites is blocked by two of the Internet service providers, Erson and Ewan, as are pornographic websites and even YouTube. The latter would require too much bandwidth.
Sometimes surveillance and self-censorship are enough. The two other Internet access providers, Eritel and Tifanus, do not block opposition websites, since they know that the great majority of Eritrean surfers would never dare to openly consult them for fear of being arrested and imprisoned.
The few netizens and webmasters courageous enough to create an independent website, or collaborate in its development, are being threatened and closely monitored. It is commonplace for the authorities to intercept e-mails from individuals whom they consider “suspect.”
The forty-odd Internet cafés, most of which mainly operate in Asmara, the capital, and in two or three other Eritrean cities, are constantly closely watched, particularly during periods of social unrest, or when compromising news about the regime is circulating abroad. At least two cybercafés are said to have been closed in 2010 and their owners arrested. The official excuse was that they were used for showing pornography to young netizens.
In January 2011, several Internet users and bloggers were allegedly arrested in cybercafés, most of them in Asmara. Questioning such people has had a dissuasive effect on other Internet users.
Propaganda and cyberattacks
In the last few years, the government has been waging an anti-Internet smear campaign in the traditional media – over which it has total control – accusing it of being devoted to pornography and media wars and of challenging the country’s cultural values and creating security problems.
However, the regime also uses the Internet as a tool to disseminate its propaganda. The two official websites, Shabait.com and Shaebia.com, respectively owned by the Ministry of Information and the country’s sole party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), disseminate only government propaganda. Online chat sessions are held to defend the authorities’ views. Some sites hosted in Europe or the United States relay the same positions, including meadna.com, eastafro.com, ertra.com, alenalki.com, and biddho.com. The topics are often belligerent, nationalist, anti-West and extremely aggressive towards the regime’s critics.
Cyberattacks are regularly launched on sites based abroad and managed by dissidents, such as asmarino.com, assenna.com and awate.com. It is thought that the government and its supporters are behind these attacks.
Response to uprisings in the Arab region
The regime is wary of the popular uprisings which have recently shaken the Arab region, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt in late 2010 and in 2011. News about these events has been muzzled by the state-controlled media – the only legal means to circulate updates, while Eritreans have turned to satellite television and international radio broadcasts to keep informed.
The Eritrean National Security Office (NSO) is allegedly examining the option of restricting the population’s access to satellite TV channels, which are very popular in the country. In this context, the launching of the terrestrial Channel 2 TV sports and entertainment network, could be seen as a first step towards a gradual ban on satellite dishes, on the pretext that sports and entertainment coverage no longer requires satellite access.
At the first sign of unrests, the regime is prepared to cut off the country from the Internet, as was done in Egypt. In a country as repressive and sealed off from the world as Eritrea, Internet users are not as organised as in Egypt or Tunisia, where netizens are the civil society’s vital force. Meanwhile, most online mobilisation efforts are being launched from abroad.