Clarifying Recent Coverage on Eritrea

Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion

Last week, Newsweek published an article about Eritrea decrying the internal situation in the country. As has become so common with reports on Eritrea, the article was heavily biased, overly simplistic, filled with stereotypes, and devoid of context, ultimately serving to poignantly encapsulate how coverage of the country is so problematic.

Lacking originality or accuracy, the article frames Eritrea alongside North Korea. In recent years, it has become quite common to see Eritrea, a young, low-income, developing country located within the volatile Horn of Africa region, derogatorily described as secretive, the “North Korea of Africa,” or even the “hermit kingdom.” While such statements suggest Eritrea mirrors North Korea or that it remains isolated and detached from the global community, closer analysis (of a number of objective measures) reveals that they are clichéd, cursory, and incorrect. In fact, one seasoned Western ambassador based in Asmara quipped, “those who compare Eritrea with North Korea have not been to North Korea and certainly do not know Eritrea,” while Norway’s Minister of Justice, reflecting upon his working visit to Eritrea (in late 2015), noted that descriptions of Eritrea (e.g. as the “North Korea of Africa”) were highly inaccurate. Perspectives countering comparisons of Eritrea with North Korea are not restricted to diplomats and politicians alone as countless recent international visitors to Eritrea have offered similar observations. As put by one European visitor to Eritrea, “the dumbest thing I have heard is that Eritrea is the North Korea of Africa,” while a highly respected Western scholar who has conducted several extended visits to Eritrea (which included trips to remote and rural areas across the country) has strongly refuted myopic generalizations of Eritrea stating that, “the real Eritrea is not what you read on the Internet…you will see many misconceptions,” and encouraging “foreigners to come to Eritrea and see for yourself.”

Newsweek’s hasty comparisons – and the broader inaccurate, reductive narrative on Eritrea – display, in crystal clear view, the poor state of reporting and understanding about Eritrea and highlight many of the worst habits of journalism, media, activism, and academia. Generally, context and critical thinking are nonexistent within coverage on Eritrea, and various stories and reports about the country are released and published, often with minimal or no fact-checking; in fact, many have few qualms about reporting based on single anonymous sources. It is little surprise, then, that this has often led to the publication of countless far-fetched, sensationalized, racist, and ultimately debunked stories and claims about Eritrea, including that the country – in a supreme suspension of all logic – hosts both Iranian and Israeli military bases or installations; that Eritrea, which on the one hand is regularly characterized as a feeble, poverty stricken, “utterly failed state” is at the same time capable of arming, funding, and training rebel movements and groups across Africa and even as far away as Southeast Asia; that the Eritrean government enacted and enforces a policy of mandatory polygamy amongst its citizens; and that the country is a hotbed of ethno-religious and sectarian turmoil and strife despite its long, proud, unique record of ethnic, religious, and communal tolerance. Remarkably, most of the published fictions have never been retracted, clarified, or corrected, which in itself is newsworthy and merits serious investigation.

Rather than lazily presenting another poorly crafted comparison of Eritrea and North Korea, Newsweek would have done much better to provide context or clarity. First, it should be noted that the media frequently present a myopic construction of North Korea, offering a relentlessly recycled picture which is often false, simplistic, and dehumanising (Broinowski 2015). In regard to comparisons with Eritrea, the simple fact is that it is Eritrea’s southern neighbour, Ethiopia, which has greater ties – both historically and at the present time – with North Korea. Just several weeks ago, in fact, a delegation of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry visited Ethiopia in order to promote and advance bilateral relations and diplomatic activities, according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). Furthermore, such cooperation is not new, with North Korea and Ethiopia having long-standing relations (involving military cooperation and North Korea providing weapons and training services) that date back to the mid-1970s.

Interestingly, although Newsweek aims to parallel Eritrea with North Korea in terms of censorship and press freedom, it overlooks that to a great degree, Ethiopia again provides the much better comparison. Specifically, it is Ethiopia, and not Eritrea, that completely shuts down the Internet and blocks or censors various sites. Ethiopia has censored its Internet for over a decade, while social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have regularly been blocked for extended periods since the outbreak of mass protests several years ago. Additionally, several weeks ago, Ethio Telecom, the state-owned telecom provider which controls the country’s internet service, blocked mobile internet access across the country, the third time during the past year that it has taken such action. Notably, Ethiopia – which is regularly one of the world’s top annual recipients of foreign assistance – has also viciously targeted journalists both at home and abroad, spending vast sums on surveillance equipment and technology allowing it to infect smartphones and computers with malware to covertly record conversations and steal data.

To clarify, neither the Internet nor foreign media are censored or blocked in Eritrea. Visit just about any home or neighbourhood in Eritrea and you are quickly confronted by a plethora of satellite dishes hoisted upon roofs. Alternatively, walk through many of the country’s busy urban streets, and you will likely encounter Eritreans of all ethnicities, ages, and genders watching foreign news programs (including CNN, MSNBC, BBC, Al Jazeera, France 24, and others), sports, or soap operas, surfing the Internet or Facebook, playing a newly released computer game, or listening to a recording by an international band, DJ, or singer.

While the Internet can be slow, context is vital, and again completely missing from the article by Newsweek. Eritrea was (and remains) one of the poorest countries in the world. Of course, on the one hand it is understood that the Internet plays an increasingly significant role in societies and may contribute to promoting economic growth and reducing poverty; on the other hand, however, access to and penetration of the Internet are higher in wealthier countries due to improved infrastructure (e.g. electricity access and cellular network coverage) and the fact that demand for Internet services rises with wealth. Importantly, Internet usage is also considerably more expensive in most developing countries, such as Eritrea, both relative to income and in absolute terms.

Furthermore, while the Internet is certainly important, so are the basics of human existence. Since independence, Eritrea has made commendable progress within a number of significant areas: life expectancy has increased; school enrolments have risen and literacy has greatly improved; access to water and sanitation have tremendously expanded; maternal, infant and child mortality rates have reduced dramatically; immunization coverage has rocketed; malaria mortality and morbidity have plummeted; and HIV prevalence has decreased considerably. These improvements did not simply arise through happenstance, but were the direct result of significant investment and considerable effort. It is quite telling that despite the comparatively slow speed of Internet in Eritrea (which has undergone improvements), the country is food secure, something that cannot be said about many other countries in its region. Food security has been achieved, notwithstanding the country’s harsh environmental and climatic conditions, through extensive investments in improved irrigation and a complex network of dams across the country, broad distribution of seeds and agricultural equipment, the establishment of micro-loan and credit initiatives (especially targeting women), agricultural training and educational programs, and large-scale livestock vaccination campaigns.

Moving forward, it is obvious that the Internet is important and should be a focus in Eritrea; it can stimulate inclusive growth and promote a range of positive developmental outcomes. At the same time, however, for a low-income country with a predominantly rural population that is engaged in agricultural activity to aim to first provide the most fundamental elements of existence for all of its citizens seems understandable. Finally, regarding food security, it is again hard to overlook that North Korea’s own historical challenges with hunger and famine are not dissimilar to Ethiopia’s own persistent food crises which, although widely attributed to climatic events resulting from El Niño and presented as an exogenous incident in Ethiopia’s acclaimed economic miracle and double-digit growth rate, actually have more to do with governmental failure and the devastating impact of its policies on the livelihoods and basic human rights of millions, including many indigenous communities across the country (OI 2016).

Importantly, through devoting considerable attention to a former diplomat, the Newsweek story also raises the issue of moral hazard. While such sources can be a great source of information, there are significant questions to be asked about how heavily one can or should rely on these testimonies as credible evidence. Within international relations, moral hazard analyses have been applied to militants who intentionally provoke a government to curtail, suppress, or adversely impact the rights of its population so as to prod the international community to intervene militarily against the oppressive regime. Similarly, a moral hazard predicament could also unfold when self-interested actors or defectors provide alleged evidence of wrongdoing by government authorities in the country of defection and may be more apt to do so if the conditions are such that the officials, agencies, or states to whom actors or defectors provide the data are less likely to conduct due diligence in assessing the validity of the information. This possibility seems more probable if there is no perceived punishment cost for false statements, if there is no viable screening system for the accuracy of accounts, or if the receiving entity finds the provided evidence conducive to its own plans or agenda (Bejesky 2015: 8).

Beyond these significant factors, which are entirely unconsidered in the article, one may also reasonably construe that these sources could be driven by a range of desires, including acquiring personal political or financial advantages. Accordingly, it is often directly in the source’s interest to essay at length about various allegations and embroider and dramatize their accounts in order increase their story’s appeal, garner attention, and secure their aims (e.g. obtain sanctuary or financial reward). For example, Ahmed Chalabi, a long-time Iraqi exile who served as a key source of information (much of which was fabricated) for the US administration, was said to be “motivated by the desire to see the United States overthrow the Hussein regime so that he could control the government of the new Iraq,” and allegedly potentially also driven by the possibility of reaping the economic dividends from Iraqi resources and global economic relations with a new regime and an open economy. As well, consider Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, codenamed “Curveball” by Western intelligence agencies, who was a key Iraqi defector who provided much information to US administration officials in the years prior to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. However, much of the information he provided was unverifiable or purely fabricated, and it was later learned that at the time of his revelations he had been seeking asylum in Germany for several years. Subsequently, he would acknowledge that he had made-up his stories of mobile bioweapons trucks and clandestine factories in an attempt to bring down Saddam Hussein (Bejesky 2015; Chulov and Pidd 2011).

In addition, the influence of the media should not be forgotten. Their preoccupation with “concision,” endless curiosity, and large appetite for a “good,” entertaining, amusing, or shocking story promotes oversimplification and encourages embellishment and sensationalism, pressuring sources to reproduce a certain narrative and ultimately leading to tragic, dramatic, distorted, visual, and emotional accounts. Notably, although there are numerous ways to confirm information, for example, through cross-examination or by consulting multiple sources, these methods are often neglected in order to help cut down on the cost of reporting (Carroll 2004).

An important dimension of the article is the hypocrisy and sheer irony of Newsweek to decry state-run media in Eritrea, yet conveniently neglect to mention the funding sources for the organizations and entities it references to buttress its claims and arguments. Radio Erena, for example, is greatly supported by RSF. Notably, RSF and Freedom House are both recipients of extensive state funding, while the latter organization’s sources of financial (and other) support also include the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), all of which are funded and supported by the US Congress and government agencies. Despite these organizations’ regular declarations of impartiality and objectivity – RSF evokes MSF, another French organization respected worldwide for its humanitarian work and which maintains a strict neutrality in political conflicts – it is difficult to believe that their board of directors and staff, which often consist of high-level US administration officials (including former Secretaries of State, national security advisers, members of Congress), has no bearing on their work. Rather, it has frequently been alleged that these organizations function as key instruments of US foreign policy, have close and elaborate links with the CIA (which has a long history of regime change operations, subversion, and covert foreign meddling or intervention), and that they target nations who are strategic US competitors and governments that antagonize Washington. For example, in a 2007 article, Salim Lamrani, a French Professor, criticized RSF’s annual rankings, questioning how Eritrea could be ranked lower than other countries where conditions and threats to journalists were objectively much worse (including Iraq, Mexico, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka). According to Lamrani, the reason was “perhaps because [Eritrea] is on Washington’s black list and RSF receives funding from the CIA front National Endowment for Democracy, NED.” As well, Radio Erena’s coverage has regularly been criticized for its slanted and unbiased approach.

Additionally, in 2014, USAID, an important RSF supporter, was caught in a scheme to destabilize and foment unrest in Cuba through Twitter and by funding hip hop artists. Moreover, Freedom House, which dates back to the early 1940s, has long been criticised for the questionable methodology it utilizes for its reports and its perceived bias in favour of countries with pro-US positions and against countries on the US “blacklist.” For example, in 1979, it sent election monitors to the Rhodesian elections staged by Ian Smith in I979 and found them “fair,” whereas it regarded the 1980 elections won by Robert Mugabe under British supervision as dubious. Furthermore, the organization’s election monitors also somehow found the Salvadoran elections of 1982 admirable. Notably, MIT Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky has suggested that Freedom House “has long served as a virtual propaganda arm of the [US] government and international right wing,” and in 2004, US Rep. Ron Paul charged that Freedom House had used US government money in the Ukraine to support the candidacy of a particular presidential candidate favored by the US (Chomsky 1988; Roman 2012). The organization has also been criticised for its slanted coverage of and role during the recent Ukrainian crisis, as well as in Serbia, Georgia, Ecuador, Honduras, Cuba, and Venezuela.

According to William Blum, a highly respected US historian and author, the NED, which was ostensibly “set up to support democratic institutions throughout the world through private, nongovernmental efforts,” was actually established due to the fact that, at the time, the CIA and US administration were in the midst of a series of high-profile scandals and the “[US administration] had to have a new organization with a nice sounding name, with the word democracy, which would be free of the taint of the CIA.” Furthermore, Allen Weintein, one of the founders of the NED, explained to the Washington Post in 1991 that, “a lot of what we do now was done covertly by the CIA 25 years ago.” Throughout its history, the NED has played a pivotal and often subversive role in the internal politics of numerous countries around the world, frequently fomenting political opposition and crises largely in the service of the US government.

Of note, Newsweek’s inclusion of a former diplomat is also highly reminiscent of a practice long favoured by foreign powers seeking to undermine or control smaller, weaker countries. In their quest for submission and obedience, powerful countries not only employ outright force and coercion, but also may resort to the cooptation or utilization of locals who support their policy aims, thus offering the semblance of legitimacy or credibility. Pepe Escobar, a prominent South American journalist, has noted how the US (and other powerful countries) uses “the locals” in target countries to push and coordinate their own agenda. For example, recall how when Jomo Kenyatta was leading the struggle for independence in Kenya, he was denounced as a terrorist leader to whom no one would speak, and numerous tame, subservient tribal chiefs were paraded one after another as possible alternatives. Also recall how in Zimbabwe, then referred to as Rhodesia, the West attempted everything to locate some local who would legitimize the racist apartheid system, eventually settling on Bishop Muzurewa. A more recent example comes from Iraq, where the colourful testimonies of Ahmad Chalabi, “Curveball”, and the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a controversial exile group based in London, were included in various intelligence or security reports and government statements, as well as widely disseminated by the media, effectively helping to create the platform for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Ultimately, the information that these sources provided to the media and the US government and intelligence community were revealed to be greatly exaggerated, false, or fabricated.

In conclusion, the aim of this article is not to romanticize Eritrea or suggest that it is free of problems or issues. The country faces significant socio-political and economic challenges and has numerous shortcomings. At the same time, however, Eritrea is a unique country, full of rich history, culture, and diversity, as well as profound complexity. Proper understanding of the country requires a more grounded, objective, contextual approach and balanced coverage and should avoid one-sided, biased portrayals that resort to simplified, clichéd perspectives and poorly crafted comparisons.

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