The Tempest Exclusive series Media Watch investigates and introspects on the intricacies of free speech around the world, right from The Tempest newsroom.
Have you heard of Eritrea? It’s a small East African country on the coast of the Red Sea. Not many people are up to date on the current events within this unique nation, and that’s most likely a result of its strict censorship laws.
According to a 2019 list compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Eritrea is ranked the world’s most censored country. Yes, that is even more so than widely known censored countries like North Korea or China! The CPJ is an independent non-profit, non-governmental organization, based in New York City, with correspondents around the world.
Eritrea is ranked the world’s most censored country
The CPJ determines censorship rankings based on the following factors:
- Restrictions of privately-owned or independent media
- Defamation laws
- Restrictions on the dissemination of false news
- Internet and website access
- Surveillance of journalists by authorities
- License requirements for media
- Targeted hacking
Evidently, there are many critical factors to consider when evaluating censorship in a country, most of which we take for granted in countries with press freedom laws. For this reason alone, Eritrea’s top ranking is a major cause for concern.
To understand the complete context of this worry, we need to rewind to September 18, 2001, when the Eritrean government shut down seven independent media outlets and imprisoned 10 journalists. They were punished for allegedly failing to comply with the country’s media licensing requirements. However, it’s widely believed that the decision was fueled by the end of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war in mid-2000. Although the war technically ended, President Isaias Afwerki was on a mission to clamp down any political opposition and continue to fight Ethiopia for more border territories. This significant moment in history is known as “Black Tuesday” and it marks the beginning of a gruesome dictatorship in the country.
So, you might be wondering how Eritrea even got to this point. In the 1930s and ’40s, the country’s economy was stimulated by Italian colonial activity and the turbulent circumstances of World War II. After the war, the economy deflated and thousands of Eritreans were forced to start a new life in neighboring Ethiopia. By 1960, Ethiopia had annexed Eritrea, forcibly taking control of the country’s territories. This resulted in an armed struggle known as the Eritrean War of Independence, and it lasted almost 30 years. However, when tensions had seemingly calmed down and Eritrea gained independence in 1993, the two countries began fighting for control over a border town named Badme and other lucrative land. In 1998, another 20 years of violent conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea emerged, leaving Eritrean media a propaganda-filled mess.
Given these circumstances, 400 000 Eritreans fled the country in the past few years, causing the diaspora population to grow. There’s also an expanding network of Eritrean activists living outside the country. They collaborate with radio stations, online platforms, phone hotlines and undercover sources inside the country. One of their main goals is to find ways to circulate accurate news in Eritrea without the government cracking down on the operation. Most Eritreans have not been fooled by Afwerki’s propaganda and hope for a better life. As reported by Vice News, one in every 10 migrants headed to Europe are from Eritrea.
The CPJ confirmed that most journalists in Eritrea who were jailed in 2001 remain behind bars today. To make matters worse, the government still controls most broadcast outlets and foreign radio signals are jammed. There isn’t even the option of browsing the internet as the country has the lowest rate of cellphone and computer ownership in the world. According to the U.N. International Telecommunication Union, less than 1% of Eritrea’s 5 million citizens have the necessary devices to go online.
As a result of the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict, many journalists fled the country after President Afwerki’s new policies, and few have spoken out about their experiences. In an interview with Financial Times, Afwerki made it clear that he thinks most journalists are “a threat to national security.” He also believes they aren’t very professional or honest about where they get their information from, thus distorting the truth. Ultimately, his intentions are to promote nationalism in Eritrea and prevent citizens from immigrating. He wants the media to reflect positively on his government, thus feeling the need to control it at all costs. Since 2012, it’s been compulsory for Eritrean journalists to attend military drills and guard government offices. Today, there are no independent media outlets in Eritrea and citizens can’t legally leave the country from ages 9-51 without official permission. This makes it nearly impossible to get accurate news about Eritrea unless you consult foreign media outlets that are working with insiders.
Another notable act of censorship in the country included the government shutting down social media before Eritrea’s independence day celebrations on May 24, 2019. Clearly, the government is aware that citizens don’t feel independent and they would express their true feelings on social media if given the opportunity.
In my opinion, censorship in Eritrea is horrifying, especially in the 21st century when information should be at our fingertips. Freedom of press plays a vital role in keeping citizens informed and holding authorities accountable. If it ceases to exist, basic human rights could be dangerously overlooked to the point of no return. Journalists have been detained and even perished under the hands of the Eritrean government and this ill practice must be put to an end. Unfortunately, there aren’t many platforms for Eritreans to speak of the political and media-related injustices in their country. However, as outsiders looking in, we can do our very best to speak out on the matter and create a level of awareness that could potentially change the future of Eritrea.
Organizations that are doing incredible work to help Eritrea include the Norwegian Refugee Council, The America Team for Displaced Eritreans, and the Eritrean Development Foundation. Unfortunately, I couldn’t source a direct donation link to the grassroots campaign ‘Freedom Friday.‘ However, I highly encourage you to get involved and make donations where possible.
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