/ 23 August 2015

Eritrea unleashes its troll patrol

Whispers of dissent are stamped out by the repressive Eritrean regime led by President Isaias Afwerki.
Whispers of dissent are stamped out by the repressive Eritrean regime led by President Isaias Afwerki.

Daniel Mekonnen has been the target of online attacks from forces loyal to the Eritrean regime for more than a decade. They range from abusive emails to death threats – one serious enough to warrant temporary police protection.

He says the offensive started after he cofounded the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights in 2004 – “the first diaspora-based movement to openly oppose the government”.

After living in exile for 12 years, the Eritrean lawyer and human rights activist has been marked as an “enemy number one” by the government because of his work in exposing its brutality, he says.

The situation in Eritrea has been called into focus in recent months: in June, a United Nations investigation concluded that the government’s abuse of its citizens “may constitute crimes against humanity”, bringing the state’s secretive and totalitarian practices into the spotlight and drawing international criticism.

Though governments from Moscow to London have been accused of using devious ways to manufacture support online, testimonies from Eritrean activists suggest pro-regime accounts are pushing abuse to extreme lengths.

Mekonnen says the threats against him intensified when he openly called for the international criminal court to investigate the regime, led by President Isaias Afwerki.

A Twitter account, @HagerEritrea, which means the “state of Eritrea” in Tigrinya, denounced Mekonnen and called on him to “be hunted for justice”. A few days later he was called a “criminal” who would “heave [sic] price for the crimes he committed against humanity”. The account’s bio claims “Eritrean policies are the best in Africa”.

The tweets, with rumours of other dangers among Mekonnen’s network, were interpreted as a serious threat to his safety by the UN inquiry team and he was put under temporary police protection in June.

UN investigators working on the Eritrean inquiry have also been placed under police guard after several were threatened by pro-regime activists in Geneva.

This week Mekonnen says he has a number he can call if he ever feels in danger – “a satisfactory arrangement”. He would be more worried if he still lived in Africa. “They have limited capability here [in Europe],” he says.

Nameless, faceless accounts
Journalists who write critically about Eritrea say they are bombarded with abusive tweets, but it is activists who bear the brunt of the online vitriol. Many say they are deluged with messages from nameless, faceless accounts, repeatedly pushing the same accusations.

Selam Kidane, an outspoken critic of the regime, has suffered this treatment since 2001, the early days of her activism.

“First it was speculations about my identity and motives, then it moved to name-calling and threats. Now it includes insults against my entire family,” she says. “Recently, they started picking on my sister, at first by mistake because she shared the same name as another activist, but when they discovered she was my sister it got even worse.” Kidane’s sister is not an activist.

Kidane has also received death threats and harassment over the phone, which she reported to the authorities. In the past she tried to “stand up to the abuse” by blocking those responsible on Facebook and Twitter but “the sheer volume makes it impossible”.

Feruz Werede, another human rights activist in exile, describes a similar experience. Facebook photos have been edited to “make me look bad”, and she’s received “explicit private messages”, she says.

Dissent and criticism of the government is not possible inside Eritrea, where even the slightest whisper is stamped out quickly. The government has dismantled the independent press and it is the world’s most difficult place to connect to the internet.

Werede is convinced this online trolling is part of an orchestrated campaign by people “handpicked by the government” to counter criticism from abroad. “If I block one account, a different account with different name pops out and continues what the blocked account started,” she says. “What these trolls do is like a broken record; they will repeat almost the same thing again and again.”

Kidane believes young pro-government activists are being trained to challenge anti-Eritrean views. “They call it ‘challenges’; I call it cyber-bullying,” she says. “I’ve been called a ‘sellout’, a ‘political whore’ and an ‘ugly woman in search of attention’.”

She says online accounts have also falsely claimed that her father and her husband “are Ethiopians implicated in the mass murder of Eritreans”.

According to Werede, “99% of the accounts are nameless and faceless”, and often appropriate the names of famous Eritreans.

Mekonnen’s threat also emerged from a faceless account, before being shared by Sophia Tesfamariam, an online commentator who the lawyer says has taken it upon herself to be a pro-government “spokesperson for the diaspora”.

Silencing people
Victoria Bernal, an academic who has charted the Eritrean diaspora’s history online, says even if the widely held belief of government orchestration turns out to be false, “the belief that exists has the same effect: silencing people, making them afraid”.

“It’s in the government’s interests to [promote the idea] that there is this slick operation, when in fact it might not exist,” she says. “Totalitarian regimes work by uncertainty.”

She also believes the regime likes to encourage polarisation among communities living abroad, dividing people into distinct pro-government and anti-government camps, yet the reality is more nuanced.

For years the internet has been a crucial space for the country’s diaspora, explains Bernal. First used during the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia to promote nationalist sentiment and rally support for the war effort, websites are now more commonly used to mobilise communities living abroad and to collect money from migrants to send back home.

But it soon became clear that where dissent and criticism were impossible in the country the internet became “a space to construct the possibility of dissent” for the diaspora, explains Bernal. Today it an essential tool for those outside the country to subvert or support the state through forums on sites such as Dehai, Asmarino and Awate, and on social media.

Twitter hashtags such as #HandsOffEritrea, #LiesAboutEritrea and #Erispotlight are frequently used to discuss, defend and promote the regime. The running theme over the past few months has been an attempt to discredit the methodology of the UN’s “bogus” or “hatchet” report.

Although there are other African governments that go to great lengths to protect their reputation at home and abroad, Bernal says “Eritrea stands out as being incredibly oppressive”, seemingly prepared to go to great lengths to protect its image. “In the end they are trying to force me to quit,” says Mekonnen, who shows no signs of being cowed. “No one gives you your rights for free; you have to earn them.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015