Over the last three decades or so, I often found myself in places, first in Nicaragua in the 1980s and then in the Horn of Africa, that I would not have recognized when listening to international media reports. Even in pre-internet times, when short-wave radio access to the BBC World Service was one of the main connections to the wider world, reportedly even for Nelson Mandela in his prison cell, the news reported from places I was actually at often seemed to come from far away lands. Or at least I did not recognise that the reality reported on was how my daily life was supposed to look. Friends who lived in the 1970s and 1980s in post-liberation Mozambique shared this impression. More recently, and I admit these are rather random examples, chosen because I have some connections to those settings, the same seems to apply to Venezuela in the context of its faltering ‘Bolivarian revolution’. This makes one wonder whether one reason behind such reporting may be connected to the fact that these were all settings where some sort of ‘revolutionary’ movement, whatever that may have meant in practice at the time, tried out a model of society different from global capitalism and liberal democracy, often combined with ‘Western’ geopolitical interests?
A recent visit to Eritrea, one of the countries that has been routinely condemned in media stories written or broadcast by people who often have never set foot into the country, offers some nuances to such reporting – not least because an unprecedented number of foreign journalists were given access to the country over the last few months. To be sure, media reports still exist that claim reporting from Eritrea is not possible and thus one has to rely on the narratives of those who have fled. In that they are supported by and often cite the June 2015 UN Human Rights Commission Report report that took anonymity and confidentiality to a level that makes many of its statements devoid of context or temporality and thus hard to engage with, critically or otherwise. I shall leave those accounts aside for the moment but want to offer some thoughts on the reporting that has been done by some of those who did actually visit Eritrea.
Roughly speaking, they fall into two broad categories: There are those who are genuinely puzzled by the fact that so many young people flee a country not visibly at war, and are prepared to spend some time trying to investigate the dynamics behind this exodus. Then there are those, thus far in the majority, who ‘know’ Eritrea is a dictatorship where human rights are being constantly violated, where everybody is a spy and nobody will talk openly. This group usually spends a very limited amount of time in the country and to little surprise its members come away confirming their initial impressions.
A pronounced example of the latter group was a recent visit by the Nairobi correspondent of a German TV news channel. Spending less than two days in the country on an assignment to find out why people flee, the news clip subsequently broadcast used the statement of a refugee based in Kenya – because nobody in Eritrea wanted to talk about this subject. We see the correspondent on the market in Asmara, holding his microphone into people’s faces, asking them why they want to flee. Unsurprisingly, no footage emerges from such encounters and more generally it confirms the government’s almost pathological suspicion of foreign journalists. Even in slightly subtler cases, reporting lacks any understanding of the specifics of Eritrea, its people, and the way they relate to their country with outsiders – an understanding that is hard to gain in those flying visits. Take the example of a camera team from the UK who came to do a story on the health service. While the main report rather unfairly complained about having a government minder with them all the time – I am not sure which country in the world would allow a foreign camera team to film in its hospitals and speak to patients without such official oversight – another team member ventured into the streets to interview ‘normal’ people. Again, people did not want to speak into a microphone and some reportedly said once the microphone was turned off they were afraid. This was taken as proof that ‘Eritrea’s reputation as one of Africa’s most repressive states shows little sign of changing’.
Such a rather stereotypical interpretation ignores the fact that many Eritreans shy away from critiquing their country and its politics publicly in front of outsiders they do not know or trust – and would certainly not do so into a microphone – not necessarily out of fear but equally because they are aware how vilified their country often is in international media. Even many of those who are very critical of the government find this in essence unfair and have no intention to contribute to this negative image. In fact, even at the time up to 2001 when there was a vibrant private newspaper scene, I remember journalists working for those papers having trouble when interviewing people. Back then it was acknowledged that it takes time for people to feel confident about giving interviews or putting their stories out into the public eye, as there simply was no tradition for doing this in the country. In addition, people are suspicious of what might be made of what they say. When discussing this more generally with a frank speaking long-term acquaintance he told me that ‘whatever you say to a journalist, they will cut it in a way that transforms the meaning, thus I would never do that as you lose control of your words’.
Undoubtedly, much is wrong in Eritrea, not least in relation to its own media sector – state owned and dominated. That is why most people have switched off, they may read the state owned newspapers but otherwise watch foreign TV channels beamed to them by the satellite dishes that cluster the roofs and balconies of Asmara’s buildings. The constant enforcement of a rather one-dimensional narrative by foreign journalists based on broad generalisations will not in any way help rectify that situation. Those distortions in rather bizarre ways even apply to some academic visitors: During my stay in the country I found myself in the company of an academic from a Eastern European University who aims to become an expert on the Horn of Africa. This was the first visit to Eritrea, intended to get a feeling for the country and potentially establish some contacts. The fact that some questions were asked upon arrival at the airport about the purpose of the visit was taken as a first sign of a repressive dictatorship. In reality, entry procedures have become totally relaxed compared to a few years ago, and I certainly was interrogated more thoroughly during a visit to the US recently than on my arrival to Asmara (in stark contrast to previous visits). Subsequently during a drink in one of the Asmara hotel bars with fairly good Wi-Fi services, an Eritrean with a laptop took a set near us in an otherwise sparsely populated space. This was the only seat with an electric plug next to it into which the laptop was plugged immediately, a valuable source of power in a city that suffers from regular power cuts and where no household has electricity for the whole day but only for certain time periods. The academic in question, however, remained convinced that this must be a spy, sitting there to listen to our conversation – and I am quite certain this will appear as some form of ‘truth’ in a future paper or presentation in some Eastern European University.
As mentioned above, there is a small but hopefully growing number of foreign journalists and visitors who venture into Eritrea with a quest to gain a deeper understanding of the country and its discontents. Some balanced reporting has indeed come out of some of these visits, usually in print media – a prime example being a very thoughtful account in a leading German newspaper – rather than on TV, but even for the latter some refreshing honest footage has emerged in some EU countries. Footage that also acknowledges that journalists can indeed move around freely and without any government minder in Asmara and all the settings that can be visited with the travel permit that all foreigners need to obtain but which is easily done. During my own stay I met a journalist from a small EU country who was curious and made a sustained effort to engage with people in normal encounters. People still did not want to talk ‘politics’ with him but he also understood some of the reservations the government has against foreign media. In fact, he told me that when a government official complained that mostly the same negative clichés would be reported about Eritrea, for example in relation to national service, while nobody reported that also the President’s children are in Sawa (the national service training grounds), he issued the following challenge: Let me go to Sawa, let me talk to people there, including the President’s children, and I will be delighted to broadcast that story. Unfortunately, nobody with a responsible position in the present leadership of Eritrea would take up that challenge.
Coming back to the question if there is a system behind the stereotypical reporting on Eritrea and the singling out of this small nation as the major villain in the politics of the Horn, one may wish to turn from journalism to fiction. Undoubtedly, the narrative of Eritrea as an unrepentant dictatorship fulfils an important geopolitical function not least in relation to the so-called War on Terror and its manifestation in the Horn of Africa, and as such is aptly propagated and used by a more diplomatically capable Ethiopian government. For an alternative level of understanding of those dynamics, the first novel of journalist and non-fiction writer Michela Wrong provides excellent reading. Her book Borderlines, based on clear analogies to the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia and its subsequent stalemate, does – in the words of one of its reviewers, himself a former diplomat – take no prisoners but also conveys a deep understanding for the injustices done by outsiders to the rights of a small and proudly self-sufficient people. And this struggle to have a history of one’s own and maintain outside respect against many odds is at the heart of much that drives Eritrean politics – in similar ways as it is or has been for other post-revolutionary societies.
Michela Wrong will talk about her book Borderlines at an event at the University of Manchester on 26 November, 17:00, University Place 3.204.
My former PhD student and now colleague Maura Duffy has written on dynamics in Venezuela, see for example ‘(Re)conceptualising democracy: the limitations of benchmarks based on neoliberal democracy and the need for alternatives’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 36, no. 8 (2015), http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01436597.2015.1026320
I have written a number of pieces on the connection between geopolitics and narratives of oppression in relation to Eritrea, see for example ‘Singled out? Eritrean and the Politics of the Horn of Africa’, World Politics Review, September 2015; ‘Representing Eritrea: geopolitics and narratives of oppression’, Review of African Political Economy, forthcoming December 2015.