Eritrea gets little coverage in the international media. In Europe, it was only when hundreds of refugees fleeing Issayas Afeworki’s tyrannical regime died on the shores of the Mediterranean in 2013 that this small Horn of Africa country began registering on the general public’s radar.
Eritrea’s only independent voice
And yet it was seven years ago that Biniam Simon first realized his dream of an independent Eritrean radio station in Paris. A well-known journalist with the state-owned national broadcaster Eri TV who arrived in France in 2007 after an eventful flight into exile, Simon was driven by the desire to finally be able to exercise his profession freely and provide fellow Eritreans with independently reported news.
Thanks to his perseverance and RSF’s support, he succeeded in launching Radio Erena (which means “Our Eritrea”) in 2009. The radio station has grown over the years and now has 12 correspondents scattered across the globe. Every week, they produce cultural, social, political and entertainment programmes that enable Eritreans inside the country to hear ideas different from those imposed by their government.
Nowadays it broadcasts in Tigrinya and Arabic to Eritrea by satellite and short wave. It is also available on the Internet and via a mobile phone app that allows anyone to listen to its programmes for the price of local phone call regardless of where they are.
The station has had no shortage of problems. In 2012, its signal was jammed by a pirate transmission that forced it off the air for three weeks. Radio Erena’s satellite access provider then abandoned the station and its website fell victim to a cyber-attack. An investigation established that the pirate transmission came from Eritrea but no action was taken in response to the complaint that RSF filed in France.
Its journalists have a constant battle to penetrate the reality of the situation in Eritrea. What with those who feed Radio Erena with false information in an attempt to discredit it, mistrustful exiles who observe a code of silence, and the difficulty of communicating with Eritreans inside the country without putting them in danger, every news broadcast is a challenge.
Radio Erena nonetheless manages to provide a real public service and to defend human rights. To appreciate this, you just need to listen to the programmes of Meron Estefanos, who constantly talks to Eritreans who have ended up in the hands of traffickers in the Sinai, reassures them, negotiates their release and warns others who can still be spared about the routes to avoid.
A regime accused of crimes against humanity
Eritreans continue to flee abroad every day, risking the punishment that awaits them if caught, because of the system of unlimited-duration military service and the complete lack of personal prospects in Eritrea. The United Nations estimates that 4,000 Eritreans flee across the country’s borders every month to escape the regime’s human rights violations.
According to the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea that was published on 8 June, most of the regime’s violations constitute crimes against humanity. This 94-page report details the acts of slavery, torture, rape and enforced disappearances to which Eritreans are subjected. The government denies all these charges, insisting that there are no political prisoners in Eritrea and that human rights continues to be its priority.
Nonetheless, there has been no opposition or public intellectual life in Eritrea for the past 15 years. All of the country’s leading political thinkers, civil society representatives and journalists were imprisoned in the space of a few weeks in September 2001. They had made the mistake of calling for implementation of the 1997 constitution, which had never taken effect, and of questioning the government’s growing authoritarianism. They are still being held, without ever having been taken before a judge, without ever being granted access to a lawyer, without even knowing what they are accused of.
Of the 11 journalists arrested at that time, RSF has received information indicating that seven of them have died in detention. Unfortunately, this information does not constitute any guarantee that the other four are still alive. The latest accounts date back to 2012.
The best known of the journalists still held is Dawit Isaak, a journalist with Swedish and Eritrean dual nationality who returned from Sweden to contribute to Eritrea’s future by founding a daily newspaper called Setit. He is often the subject of campaigns by NGOs. It is also hoped that Seyoum Tsehaye, Emanuel Asrat and Temesgen Gebreyesus are still alive after 15 years.
Dozens of other journalists have also since been arrested, and have often been held for years without knowing what crimes they allegedly committed. RSF estimates that a total of 19 journalists are currently detained in Eritrea, making it Africa’s biggest prison for media personnel.
Eritreans sacrificed to realpolitik
Despite all these documented human rights violations, past and present, European governments continue to talk to Eritrea in the hope of a positive evolution within the regime, a hope that most best-informed observers and diplomats find unrealistic.
In 2015, the European Union decided to provide President Issayas Afeworki’s regime with 200 million euros in funding over five years. This money would not end up in the regime’s coffers but would be used by the few international organizations in Eritrea for development projects, the EU insisted.
It remains to be seen how use of the money will be controlled in a country with no transparency. Officially, the funding is conditioned on progress on human rights and governance, but the regime is in the habit of going back on its word almost as soon as it gives it. A good example is the undertaking the government gave in April 2015 to keep military service within the legal limit of 18 months. The foreign minister backtracked on this pledge in June 2015.
The funding is also conditioned on continued “positive cooperation” between the EU and Eritrea on management of migrant flows as part of the Khartoum process. This process is supposed to include support for countries that receive migrants and development improvements in countries of origin. In practice this has meant, for example, that financial support was provided to President Omar al-Bashir’s government in Sudan, which sent about 100 Eritreans back to their country of origin in May 2016. They are now being held incommunicado in Eritrea for desertion.
Eritrea meanwhile tries to allay suspicion by inviting international TV crews to come and do reports in the space of a few days. They are taken around a carefully prepared circuit between Asmara, Massawa and Keren, and they are always accompanied by government interpreters. Then the government uses these reports as grounds for claiming that the media operate freely in Eritrea.
Amid European realpolitik and Eritrean government manipulation, Radio Erena is one of the few voices that is still trying to speak truth to power, that still defends the rights and concerns of Eritreans, a people who seem to have been abandoned both in their own country and abroad.
For the past eight years, Eritrea has been ranked last out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index