Case Study: Eritrea
The small African country of Eritrea is known for having what many consider the harshest media regulations in the world. Often drawing comparisons to countries like North Korea, the Eritrean communication system is one of the most restrictive systems in the world. Certainly not the environment you would imagine a local radio DJ to be born into.
Enter, Essey. Asbu native Eritrean and host of Eritrean Community Radio in Minnesota, a weekly radio program that provides current news and events on the Eritrean Community in Minnesota, Eritrea and the Horn of Africa in general.
I talked with Essey about life in Eritrea as well as how his radio program here in Minnesota brings together a community of people from all over the world.
According to the CIA Fact Book, Since gaining independence in 1942, Eritrean history has been defined by conflict. A decade after gaining independence, Eritrea was annexed by Ethiopia which sparked a violent civil war that lasted 30 years. The Eritrean rebels eventually defeated government forces and once again became independent in 1993.
For the past 26 years Eritrea has been under the dictatorship of rebel war hero turned President Issayas Afeworki where he and his regime have controlled media and information for nearly 30 years.
Eritrea has arguably the strictest media regulations in the world. There is virtually no freely reported news and the country has ranked ranked last in the World Press Freedom Index for the past eight years.
The government controls all broadcast media and private ownership is also banned leaving Eritrea with one state-owned TV station; and two state-owned radio networks. Combine this with only around 1 percent of Eritreans having internet access and what results is a media system that draws comparisons to North Korea, according to the U.N
On September 18, 2001 President Afeworki and his government made their most public and aggressive move against journalists when they arrested 11 journalists who were trying to publish an open letter calling on the government to implement the constitution and hold elections. This was a part of a serious media crackdown in the region which saw media freedom disappear throughout the Horn of Africa.
Of the 11 journalists, seven are believed to have died while imprisoned while the remaining survivors are believed to continue to be detained in inhumane conditions still without any charges or trials. In 2016 the U.N. launched a Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea which called these arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances human rights violations.
I asked Essey if he wanted to or if he even could go visit his native country. “Oh no, you probably wouldn’t see me again if I went back there,” he said with a slightly morbid chuckle.
By day the 35 year old Asbu works as an IT specialist for the University of Minnesota and says he never had any real training in journalism or broadcasting and doesn’t consider himself a journalist.
With his program, “Eritrean Community Radio in Minnesota” Essey says he wants to provide honest news, and clean entertainment to our listeners. The majority of these listeners are Eriteans and other people of the Horn of Africa that are residing in the Twin Cities area but they have listeners from around the world tune in for the weekly Saturday show.
“I think programs like ours and other ones like it are so vital to the Eritrean community, it’s a chance to celebrate and acknowledge our culture, our history. It’s a chance for all Eritreans regardless of where they may be to connect with one another and take pride in being a member of a community.” said Essey
That turned out to be a common theme talking to Essey, Pride. He described the Eritrean people as ferociously prideful of their history and culture.
Never was there a better example of this pride than in 2014 when Eritrea celebrated the 20th anniversary of their independence. KFAI, the radio affiliate who broadcasts ECRM, and the ECRM team put on a special live taping / celebration to celebrate the anniversary of their independence. A small gathering, around 20 Eritreans gathered to hear Essey speak about human trafficking in Eritrea.
“That’s what I am most proud of, that night was very emotional; we did our show we sang we danced with everyone who came out and just celebrated the common connection between us. I remember people were cheering “20 years of dignity, 50 years off of our knees” and i was all just very powerful.” said Essey.
“And that’s why I think programs like us are so important and why I am so heartened to see these kind of courses are being emphasized. Call it journalism, call it activism, call it whatever you want the important thing is that you are bringing people together and strengthening this community through your work.” Essey added.
Talking with Essey was a truly uniqueexperience. His passion for what he does and his pride in his culture is inspiring. Beyond that, this program demonstrates the power and the necessity of community journalism. Despite the best efforts of dictatorships regime to suppress media and information, there are still people like Essey eager to connect with people and share and create in the name of uplifting a nation and a culture.