Voice of the Masses: Freedom of expression and the government media

“Voice of the Masses” is the tagline of the Eritrean government media. The government, through its ‘Ministry of Information’, is the only one responsible for producing this voice.

Eritrean law guarantees freedom of speech and of the press (Article 19-2 of the unimplemented Constitution) and the government claims that no restriction is in place to limit freedom of expression in the country. The ban imposed on all private media since 2001 for example had nothing to do with freedom of press. And since the ban was necessitated by the fact that all private medias were discovered to be enemy spies, their closure could not have impacted freedom of expression in any sense.

The Eritrean government’s first media started 1980’s with radio broadcast “Voice of the Masses” from the revolutionary army’s Central Command in the mountainous Nakfa region.

The Eritrean government’s first media started 1980’s with radio broadcast “Voice of the Masses” from the revolutionary army’s Central Command in the mountainous Nakfa region.

In total disregard of these government assurances, the international community accuse Eritrea of limiting press freedom. In 2011 for example, the then US ambassador to the United Nations, Ms Susan Rice, was quoted describing Eritrea as a “black hole” in the region, where independent, verifiable information is almost non existent. On a scale of 0 to 100, Freedom House rates Eritrea’s media restriction 94. For the last nine years, the French based advocacy group Reporter’s Without Borders has ranked Eritrea as country with the least freedom of press in it’s annual World Press Freedom Index, preceded by North Korea. Probably prompting the use of “Africa’s North Korea” in several prominent news reports (for example here and here).

The government’s monopoly on information is complete. Not only has it been the only “voice” in the country’s airwaves but it also makes sure that other voices are in-line. The Ministry censures any and all documents from private citizens or organizations. It strictly enforces that all print documents go through the Ministry before being accepted by any printing press in the nation: be it school bulletins, trivial church schedule pamphlets, entertainment event posters, invitation cards, etc. The Ministry also enforces same restrictions for recorded media, all music albums and entertainment films have to get approval letter from the Ministry before a producer could publish the material.

Even international mail to Eritrea is censured. The Eritrean Postal Service prohibited items list includes “any seditious or libelous” item[1]. Any mail containing cassettes, video tapes, CD’s, books, or magazines require ‘authorization’ from the Ministry of Information or Education[2]. Contents deemed “inappropriate” by the Ministry are either confiscated or returned to sender. ‘Inappropriate’ contents include Bible, Qur’an, gospel music, Ethiopian Amharic songs or films, etc.

The internet remains to be the least controlled mass communication tool in Eritrea, however it is rarely used for purposes other than e-mail and chat communications with family and friends abroad. Eritrea was the last country in Africa to established internet connection and access to internet is highly centralized. Gaining private access through the government Telecom Company requires a special government authorization. Most users access internet from local internet cafes found in the cities. Internet penetration rate is reported to be 3.5 or 4.3 per cent (less than half of the African average)[4, 5]. In addition to access, internet speed is too slow, sometimes dropping below 10 KBps[3], making most browsing or even e-mail almost impractical. Access to prominent Eritrean news websites from Eritrea is too low to even register by most online traffic estimation tools (like Google Display Network Ad Planner or Alexa.com).

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References

[1]    Eritrean Postal Service. FAQ: “What articles are not accepted or transmitted by the post office?” Website, accessed on December 2012. http://www.eriposta.com/ (website currently Parked!)
[2]    United States Postal Service. County conditions for mailing – eritrea. (http://pe.usps.com/text/Imm/ce_029.htm)
[3]    Sara Kidane. The Net Effect: Eritrea’s Dictator Dilemma. PhD thesis, Addis Abeba university, 2008.
[4]    Abiye Megenta. Can it tweet its way to democracy? the promise of participatory media in africa. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, May, 2011.
[5]    Reporters Without Borders. Countries under surveillance: Eritrea. (http://en.rsf.org/surveillance-eritrea,39762.html)

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