The politics of academic smear campaigns: reflections on a recent article about Eritrean trafficking networks in a Dutch newspaper

A few weeks ago I was asked by a journalist from the Volkskrant, a highly respected Dutch newspaper that I used to read when living in the Netherlands myself, to provide comments on the then still embargoed study on Eritrean refugees and the role of the Eritrean government in ‘trading’ those.

photo: Stefan Boness,

The main gist of my comments was that the overall theme of digital technology in relation to trafficking was a timely topic – even if the case of Eritrea did not provide the best example to explore it, for many reason. In addition, I pointed out that the broad sweep of conclusions could not be drawn from the methodology employed, and some issues presented as facts were actually wrong or incomplete.

The main author of the work, or rather, the co-editor but in the way the work was advertised the focus centred on her, is Mirjam van Reisen. I know of and have cited parts of her past work, as the Eritrean Studies community is rather small, but I have never met her in person. I was not the only person asked by the Volkskrant to comment, and my co-commentator, Jon Abbink from the University of Leiden, made some very similar comments to mine. He in addition stressed that much of the information provided by members of the Eritrean community abroad is done so with a clear purpose, thus needs to be properly interrogated and analysed.

Those who know van Reisen’s previous work are aware that her views on Eritrea are black and white: there is the truth, provided by refugees from Eritrea whose narratives have a higher moral authority than other accounts – and then there are the manipulative narratives of those close to and supportive of the government. Don’t get me wrong, organisations like the Young PFDJ employ quite nasty tactics to disturb open discussion and debate on Eritrean issues in multiple diaspora settings. But the same is true for those who critique the regime, only that the latter are often more subtle. This battle about who ‘owns’ the truth about Eritrea always extended to the academic community as well – as I have argued in a previous blog.

I first heard that the article in the Volkskrant on van Reisen et al.’s latest work had come out when I received an email from a friend, saying jokingly ‘I was not aware that you go to bed with the Eritrean regime’. It’s writer shortly after also sent me, as promised, a copy of the piece that was published in the paper’s 31 March print edition (a different online version is available here), and I was astonished to read van Reisen’s claim that I had ‘warm relationships’ with the Eritrean regime and thus could not be regarded as an independent researcher.

As a former journalist myself, I do not actually believe in allowing people to authorise interviews or give them the right to adjust what they may have said afterwards – and certainly in my own country this is not common. So I had no objections to not having seen the piece before it was published. But neither would I have expected that van Reisen was apparently allowed to intervene in that way.

For the record, I do not have ‘warm relationships’ with any regime, including Eritrea’s. I have relations of friendship and respect with Eritreans from all wakes of the political divide who I have often known for decades. Some are inside Eritrea, some work in various ministries or for the party. Others are inside Eritrea’s prisons and have not be seen or heard of for decades – and to one of them I dedicated a book on Eritrea in 2005. I also know the feeling to sit in the office of an Eritrean official and be lectured on the ‘truth’ about Eritrea while feeling a shiver going down my spine. And, simply due to the fact that I have worked in and on Eritrea for more than two decades, I know many families and friends torn apart by its politics, inside Eritrea, in the diaspora and among the swelling population of refugees.

People have different ethical beliefs and motivations. I fully respect those of my colleagues who refuse to travel to Eritrea, and have great sympathy for those who aim to do so but are denied the opportunity. I have chosen to continue to engage and while one never knows if a visa is forthcoming, if it is I never saw a reason not to go. I talk to everybody who will talk to me, and it is the job of a social science researcher to analyse and interpret those conversations, to the best of their ability – at least that is how I see it. I might get it wrong, as we all do at times, and would expect scrutiny of my work – not an attack on my integrity.

A friend urged me to make a formal complaint to the Volkskrant and insist on a correction or apology, as the article can be read as an attack on my academic reputation. I decided not to do so, as I have no intention of joining this personalised battle of who has the right to the truth on Eritrea fought by regime supporters and the human rights lobby that claims the moral high ground but in essence uses human rights as a political tool.

But I am still puzzled that van Reisen out of all people goes down the route of the smear campaign, refuting any critique of her work with personal insults – as she has been on the receiving end of such tactics by Eritrean regime supporters herself. But then, she is on the side where the moral high ground rests, or so she styles herself, thus those who do not agree with her must almost by definition be rightful targets – or so it seems.

In a final twist, the journalist who wrote the article gave me the last word. She ended her article with two quotes from my comments stating that the main battle in relation to Eritrea seems to be about ‘who has the right to the truth’. And this, rather tragically ‘will not help in any way to solve the problems of Eritrean politics and contribute to a better future for Eritrean wherever they live’. Ditto.

My latest article on Eritrean affairs, Post-liberation politics and political space in Eritrea: Interrogating aspirations among educated youth, has just come out in the Journal of Development Studies. If interested please ask me for a copy.

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