An expert's point of view on a current event.

Life in Eritrea’s News Desert

What the country teaches the world about the importance of an independent press.

A picture taken on July 20, shows military tanks and trucks destroyed in the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war are piled as a monument in the Eritrean capital Asmara. (Maheder Haileselassie Tadese/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 20, shows military tanks and trucks destroyed in the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war are piled as a monument in the Eritrean capital Asmara. (Maheder Haileselassie Tadese/AFP/Getty Images)

Throughout Eritrea, Seyoum Tsehaye’s photographs and films are well known, although they are difficult to access elsewhere. As a war photographer and freedom fighter from the 1970s to the 1990s, Seyoum documented Eritrea’s battle for independence from Ethiopia. He captured moments of deep pain—families burying the charred bodies of loved ones killed by napalm bombs and, in one of his most famous images, a young father, grief-stricken at the burial of a family member after Ethiopia’s Derg regime bombed his village. But he found moments of great triumph, too. His images of women and men waving tree leaves to welcome home victorious fighters in 1991 are unforgettable.

Seyoum wanted to tell his people’s stories and connect them to the world. In 1993, when Eritrea finally received international recognition and began building its institutions, he got his chance to do so on a large scale when he became head of Eri-TV, the state broadcaster. From that perch, he produced acclaimed documentaries about Eritreans’ sacrifices and, years later, garnered international accolades for his fearless journalism.

“I wish with my pictures to tell the lives and the struggle we waged, Eritrean people waged,” he said in an interview after becoming head of Eri-TV. “I want just to make a communication between the Eritrean people and the people living in other countries so that they can be one people, they can help each other and they can know each other very well.”

Even now, Seyoum’s images of Eritrea’s 30-year freedom struggle line the walls of museums, adorn postcards, and appear on global newscasts. But around those crystalized moments from the country’s past, Eritrea has changed faster than anyone expected. Today, documenting life in the country as Seyoum did would be nearly impossible.

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Throughout the 1990s, Eritrea enjoyed a relatively free press. Journalists were comfortable questioning the government, and there was plenty of room for dissenting political opinion. Activists and academics often stood up in open meetings to challenge the president; in one notable case, in 1996, a young law student at a public seminar pelted the president with questions about incompetence in the country’s nascent legal institutions. Religious leaders, political figures, and the public at large engaged in open dialogue. Serious debate seemed welcome, in other words, and politicians were at least somewhat accountable to their constituents.

After a border war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000, though, President Isaias Afwerki tightened his grip. Following the war for independence, animosity between the countries had persisted, with the precise demarcation of the border being particularly contentious. It wasn’t that shocking when, in May 1998, conflict in the small border town of Badme set off the second war between the two nations. What was perhaps more surprising was that it appeared to convince the president of the need for perpetual mobilization and unwavering allegiance to his regime. The government became more authoritarian; political opponents faced intimidation through arbitrary arrest, forced disappearances, and torture; and those who challenged authority could expect quick reprisals.

Then, in 2001, the Eritrean government started arresting prominent journalists and banned local independent news organizations. The crackdown was sudden, forceful, and sent an unambiguous message about how the government would deal with its critics. During a roundup that began in September 2001, seven independent newspapers were shuttered, hundreds of journalists lost their jobs, and many were jailed. Yemane Gebremeskel, who was the president’s spokesman at the time and is now the minister of information, simply dismissed the journalists as unprofessional and unethical and hinted that they were an enemy of the state.

At least seven of the journalists imprisoned in 2001 have since died in detention, according to Reporters Without Borders, a media advocacy group. Four of their colleagues may still be alive, but their status is impossible to confirm. Seven others were detained between 2002 and 2011 and remain imprisoned. The government has refused to provide proof of their well-being. As recently as 2016, Osman Saleh, Eritrea’s foreign minister, claimed that all were still alive. That is very much in doubt. A prison guard who fled the country in 2010 and spoke to Al Jazeera that year reported that 15 jailed journalists and dissenting government officials had died in prison, and that solitary confinement, extreme temperatures, and food deprivation were not uncommon.

It wasn’t only journalists, of course, who felt the heat from the government crackdown. The elimination of the free press enabled the regime to introduce new restrictions on average citizens that might otherwise have been protested. For example, the Isaias regime repeatedly postponed elections, and it never implemented the constitution that it drafted after independence. Further, it made mandatory national service, which had once been envisioned as a young person’s 18-month contribution to the new nation’s development, nearly open-ended. In turn, a generation of men and women have been forced to spend decades of their lives serving in the military or working for government agencies for nominal pay.

A 2015 United Nations report painted a grim picture of other human rights abuses throughout the country, including arbitrary arrests and detention, deaths in custody, and religious persecution. Steadfast government supporters have defended Isaias, dismissing concerns over human rights violations as part of a Western effort to undermine Eritrea. When the U.N.’s Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea solicited comments from the public, it received thousands of letters of support for the regime.

In the absence of reliable news, rumor and disinformation have taken over. In recent years, border skirmishes between Ethiopia and Eritrea have made international headlines but were quickly denied by one or both parties. Details of deaths and casualties—routine information in other contexts—have been impossible to confirm. Last fall, when news of a mass protest in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, began to circulate, reports of fatalities could not be verified. News organizations were left to rely on secondhand and thirdhand information. The exact size of the protest and whether it did turn deadly remain unknown, and the names of those purportedly killed have never been released.

To this day, fear clouds citizens’ outlooks. Eritreans are unsure whether speaking their minds might make them targets. “Information collected on people’s activities, their supposed intentions and even conjectured thoughts,” the U.N. confirmed in 2015, “are used to rule through fear.” On every front—religion, speech, travel—basic freedoms have been curtailed. These dire conditions have driven tens of thousands of young people to flee their homeland, resulting in record numbers of refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea crossing the Mediterranean Sea starting in 2014 and continuing, at a slower pace, until today.

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For years, the government justified its authoritarianism by citing the threat from neighboring Ethiopia, which is around 20 times more populous and nearly 10 times as large. In July, though, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a historic peace deal. The agreement ended more than 18 years of cold war and presented an unprecedented opportunity for change. It is a chance to release jailed journalists and restore press freedoms, which would be a transformative move for the country.

It is worth remembering, after all, that the fall of Eritrea’s press went hand in hand with the decline of its democracy. And that pattern plays out again and again. Across the globe, according to my analysis of data from Transparency International and Reporters Without Borders, countries with better press freedom enjoy less corruption and stronger civil liberties.

So far, unconfirmed reports of prisoner releases and talk of new limits on the time young people will spend in national service have given hope that reform might be coming. The government has not acknowledged any such plans, but it is promising to make changes “so people can have a say in how their country and their government is run,” Yemane Gebreab, one of Isaias’s closest advisors, said in an interview with Bloomberg this month.

For now, the peace with Ethiopia remains fragile, and the Eritrean government could easily use the prospect of renewed tensions to avoid demilitarization. That would push reforms further down the road, with Eritreans left in limbo and regional stability a distant dream. With a growing list of international players with security and financial interests in the Horn of Africa—from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, which have established military bases, to China and the United States, which want to protect their investments, to Europe, which has had trouble dealing with the influx of migrants—the ripple effects could be profound.

Today, Seyoum’s images are celebrated, but his name has been all but erased. By the early 2000s, he had become a vocal critic of the government. He pushed for reforms, and he questioned the government’s involvement in the border war with Ethiopia. That put a target on his back. On Sept. 21, 2001, as part of Isaias’s crackdown, government agents took Seyoum from his home in Asmara. His family has not seen or communicated with him in 17 years. His youngest daughter, born after his arrest, has never met him.

In a report released this March, Reporters Without Borders concluded that Eritrea’s imprisonment of journalists is a crime against humanity. For the jailed journalists and their families, secretive detention has led to years of suffering without closure. For the country, the lack of a free press to monitor those in power has enabled autocratic rule. And for the rest of the world, Eritrea provides an arresting example of what happens when governments dismantle the pillars of civil society. Now, peace with Ethiopia presents a chance for Eritrea to plot a new course and show the world what happens when journalism is restored.

Salem Solomon is a multimedia digital journalist at the Voice of America’s Africa Division.