In Eritrea, certain topics are known to be out of bounds for journalists. (Reuters/Leonhard Foeger)
Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) declared that Eritrea is the world’s most censored country, worse even than North Korea or Turkmenistan. Their survey highlights the fact that independent media was banned in 2001; that at least 16 Eritrean journalists are behind bars, making the government the worst jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa; and that legislation requires journalism to support “national objectives”.
I worked as a freelance journalist in Eritrea from 2003-2009, and can corroborate the CPJ’s conclusion. If anything, it does not go far enough — in part because the censorship is so comprehensive that obtaining accurate recent information is very difficult.
One of the most notable features of the censorship regime is that it is micromanaged, which mirrors how the entire nation is governed. When I was working with state media as columnist, the information minister at the time, Ali Abdu, would personally read and approve or reject most news items prior to publication.
Certain topics are known to be out of bounds for journalists. For example, senior government officials who fell out of favor with the regime — and then were either imprisoned or exiled — are never mentioned. Everyone who appears in the media is aware of this unwritten law. TV editors scrutinise every bit of footage to make sure none of the banned personalities are included.
But journalists are not always aware of who is in or out of favour at any given time, and must constantly check with their editors to confirm who can or cannot be mentioned on any given day.
Censorship pervades every aspect of society, not just the media industry. The work of artists who have absconded — an estimated 10% of the 5-million population is thought to have fled the country — is barred from being played. And internet cafes, where the majority of Eritreans access the web via slow connections, request user IDs before allowing access, ensuring that the government has a record of citizens’ online activity.
Since this May, most social media messaging apps have been blocked. Some residents have resorted to using VPNs to circumvent the ban — but internet cafes that helped them do so have reportedly been shut down.
Everything to be published, recorded, distributed or filmed in the country must obtain prior approval from the Ministry of Information. Producers need to submit scripts of films and lyrics first, and then have the project reviewed again after it’s recorded and/or filmed. Earlier approved works undergo new scrutiny that can result in an order that they be re-shot or re-recorded. To make things even worse, the ministry charges a fee for this process which ranges from 800 -1200 Nakfa (R804 – 1206), payable regardless of whether the permit is issued (to put this in perspective, the holder of an undergraduate degree can expect to earn Nfk1 400 per month).
In order for any work to be approved, nationals inside the country often are asked to bring an official letter to censorship office that shows their good standing, while artists in the diaspora must produce a 2% income tax certificate to certify that they are loyalists to the regime (Eritrea attempts to enforce this income tax on all Eritreans in the diaspora).
As a result of this almost-medieval level of censorship, most artists either have been effectively silenced or forced to work underground, while a few fortunate ones have fled. Some continue to produce methodical, formulaic art work, while authors have been reduced to translating self-help books with little relevance to the general reader. Poetry books have been effectively banned, since all poems are necessarily prone to interpretation and thus can’t survive censorship.
I fled in 2012. Prior to that I was living in constant fear after being labeled a “national security threat” in the state newspaper by former information minister Ali Abdu in 2009. This came in response to an article in the ruling party magazine which was deemed to have fallen foul of one of these unwritten rules.
Immediately, all editors were ordered to ban me. Even TV crews had to make sure they excluded my images and videos if I took part in any event that would be reported by the media. This ban extended to my girlfriend then, who used to contribute occasionally in the state newspaper. All this happened despite my status as an insignificant journalist.
Ironically, even Abdu himself fled in 2012, claiming political asylum in Australia. This shows just how capricious the political winds can be.
Today, most Eritreans have access to another source of information: satellite television. But there is very little Eritrean news broadcast on major international news channels, and two Eritrean stations based in the diaspora have been aggressively jammed by the authorities.
As a result of this extreme censorship, Eritreans have become an expert at reading between the lines, trying to decode messages and find hidden meanings in the stories that are published and the art works that are given permission to go ahead. This leads to its own dangers — sometimes the same story can be interpreted a hundred different ways — and is no substitute for the independent media that Eritrea so desperately needs.
Abraham T. Zere is the executive director of PEN Eritrea in exile.