One of my favorite pastimes in Eritrea is to rummage through my grandfather’s papers, which include his own writings in the Eritrean newspapers of the 1940s and that of the many prolific Eritreans. The lively discussions on the various issues of the day as well as news and information provided are a treasure and offer a glimpse into Eritrea’s past and the heartbeat of the population, living under occupation. These old papers are also monuments, testament to Eritrea’s rich media culture and history, and one that will undoubtedly inspire Eritreans to aspire to inform, and emulate the craftiness with which our forefathers presented the Eritrean voice.
It is not the intention of this author to do a comprehensive presentation on Eritrea’s vast media and information history, which includes a variety of literary sources including books, magazines and newsletters. That, is still an endeavor that needs to be pursued in earnest as Eritrea moves into the next phase in its development agenda. An information infrastructure to meet the demands of an increasingly interconnected global economy in which the people of Eritrea will have an important and indispensable role in defining Eritrea’s true image and character. Despite the hostile colonial environment and the denial of formal education to majority of the people, Eritreans found ways to express themselves orally, through art and even print across the globe, and most especially in Eritrea.
The first Eritrean newspapers appeared post World War II during the British Administration of Eritrea. In 1942, Aboy Woldeab Woldemariam, an educator, journalist and a prolific writer was appointed by the British Administration to be director and editor of the Semunawi Gazetta Eritra (Eritrean Weekly News) and he worked there until 1948. In 1950, he became the editor of Hanti Ertra (One Eritrea), the newspaper published by the Independence Block movement. The Unionists-who wanted Eritrea united with Ethiopia, also had their own newspaper, Hibret, in which they offered their arguments and views on unification. Dehai Eritra is also one the independent newspapers of the 1950s.Its maiden issue came out on 21 September 1952, last issue # 50, was published on 6 August 1954. Eritrean journalists and writers, both in Eritrea and in the Diaspora can learn a thing or two about journalism and its uses, its reach, its contributions to society etc. from these gems.
Eritrea’s newspapers Hanti Ertra (United Eritrea) and Dehai Eritrea (Voice of Eritrea) played an important role in the development of national consciousness. Nationalist media did not reappear until the start of armed resistance in the 1960s and 1970s and these have laid a strong foundation for the development of Eritrea’s media sector. Whilst the powers to be and their media worked to keep Eritrea out of public attention, the Eritrean liberation movements and the people of Eritrea worked in earnest to raise awareness and a cursory look at all the information publications, attests to this truth.
Development of the media infrastructure in Eritrea is a work in progress and has actually achieved a lot, considering the turbulent neighborhood and extensive propaganda and has been a strategic asset in advancing Eritrea’s development strategy reflected in the young nation’s impressive achievements and accelerated economic growth. A media literate citizenry is essential to building and sustaining democracy and it is an area that the people of Eritrea have a greater advantage. Eritrean people are also owners of their “news and information” outlets, another great source of pride.
Eritrea has had the benefit of learning from the mistake of others in the African continent and is threading with the same critical and deliberate strategy to achieve its goals to develop the capacity and quality of Eritrea’s media sector – with the participation of the people. For example, when the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front wanted to establish a radio station in the liberated areas-it reached out to the people of Eritrea everywhere-including its Diaspora.
In the January 1978 Newsletter “Eritrea in Struggle”, a publication of the Association of Eritrean Students in North America (AESNA) announced a fund raising campaign. It said:
“…Today, with the number of people in the liberated areas, in villages, towns and cities, in the millions, the EPLF is faced with the most urgent task of disseminating mass education on a large scale. To facilitate the acceleration of mass education, the EPLF considers it of prime importance to set up a radio station in the liberated areas. Moreover, with the lightening advance of the EPLF, the Ethiopian occupationists, their imperial masters, and other reactionary elements, are stepping up their slanderous campaign against the Eritreans peoples just and revolutionary struggle and in particular against the EPLF…Attempts to isolate the Eritrean struggle and the EPLF, through news blackouts, lies, slanders and distortions by the imperialist press have to be combatted. One of the fundamental ways is to establish a radio station in the liberated areas of Eritrea from where the EPLF can present the true voice of the Eritrean people and expose the distortions by imperialist and reactionary news media…”
And the Newsletter continued:
“…It is in light of these central tasks of our revolution, that we have decided to launch a fund raising campaign to assist in the establishment of a radio station…we have projected to raise $50,000 within a period of 9 months (December 1977-August 1978). Therefore we call on all progressive, anti-imperialist and democratic organizations and individuals to support and assist us in any way they can (contributions, donations, etc.)…”
Similar fundraising events were held in other Eritrean Diaspora communities around the world and on 1 January 1979, “Dimtsi Hafash”, Voice of the Broad Masses was launched in Fah, in the Sahel region of Eritrea. So from the very beginning, it was the Voice of the people, as it was established by the people.
At first the broadcasts were in Tigrinya and Arabic, soon to be followed by broadcasts in Afar language on 16th February 1979 and in August 1979, broadcasts in the Tigre language began. On 20th February 1999, broadcasts in the Nara language began and so it went, and today, Voice of the Masses, the voice of the Eritrean people broadcasts in all of Eritrea’s 9 languages. In addition, today Kirn Gebil-(Tigre for Voice of the Masses) also broadcasts in Amharic, Oromo and Somali languages.
Dimtsi Hafash made significant contribution in raising a certain level of awareness of citizenship and facilitating cultural integration among the Eritrean population. It was particularly important in mobilizing the whole society to participate in the armed struggle for independence. The broadcasts were recorded on cassettes and distributed throughout the world. Eritreans understood the importance of the information and worked tirelessly to make sure that Dimtsi Hafash was also distributed in print.
Eritreans painstakingly transcribed each broadcast and sent them via fax and mail. All this went on during the liberation struggle, when most Eritreans in the Diaspora were new refugees, still adjusting to life in exile and working, some multiple jobs, to sustain the livelihood of their families on the one hand, and supporting the liberation movement with the other. This while the world, those shedding crocodile tears for Eritrea and her people, worked to suppress “news and information” to, and about, Eritrea.
In Eritrea, like in most African countries, the radio is the most widely used news and information media. Today, its satellite broadcasts reach millions across the world and is playing an important role in Eritrea’s social, economic and political development. Successive colonialists, especially the Ethiopians, suppressed Eritrean cultures and languages. Curriculum was changed in the schools and Eritreans were forced to use that of Ethiopia’s. Eritrea’s history was deliberately distorted to enable Ethiopia’s annexation. In addition to fighting for Eritrea’s independence, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front also worked to revive and preserve Eritrea’s cultures and languages and the radio played and continues to play a role in that endeavor.
But Eritreans were also constantly kept informed by the publication of a variety of newsletters, periodicals etc. during the 30 year struggle. In addition to providing news and information about the struggle, the challenges and opportunities, they also served as educational tools in the EPLF’s efforts to re-invigorate and preserve Eritrean cultures and languages, expand social services such as health and education, establish grassroots organizations and establish the rudimentary institutions of the “government in the jungle”. Underground hospitals and factories were established and the EPLF was producing medicines, sanitary napkins, sandals (shida) and more in the liberated areas. It was also conducting extensive literacy programs.
Paul D. Fallon wrote about one of the programs of Dimtsi Hafash in 2008 and its role in the education of the Bilen (Blin) and preservation of their language. He says:
“…the daily radio program, Dehai Gebaylakh, ’Voice of the Masses’…In its first broadcast, the radio program stated three main objectives…To provide for Blin speakers current, truthful, and clear information in their mother tongue…To provide a suitable atmosphere for Blin people for knowing and developing their culture, language, and its people in particular and the nation at large… To make the people active participants in the process of developing Eritrea politically, economically, and socially…”
Today, in addition to Dimtsi Hafash, Radio Sawa, Radio Zara are also adding to the variety in the needs of Eritrea’s diverse population.
With the advent of the internet, today’s youth have an important role to play in advancing Eritrea’s information infrastructure. Since most already own the technological tools, the skills and the confidence to let their own voices be heard, Eritrean voices are found all over cyberspace- in blogs, social networking sites, and internet based radio and more. Across Europe and the United States, there are community radio stations maintained by the community and run by volunteers. Here are a few examples:
The Eritrean Community Radio in Minnesota provides current news and events on the Eritrean Community in Minnesota, Eritrea and the Horn of Africa in general. Although audiences are mainly Eritreans residing in the greater Twin Cities metro area, ECRM has listeners in other Eritrean communities as well as people of the Horn of Africa from all over the world. ECRM strives to provide accurate, timely news, as well as entertainment, as well as cultural music from all Eritrea’s diverse ethnic groups.
Radio Mekete is an all-volunteer, locally based, access-to-all community radio station in Dallas. It was created to promote community- oriented commercial and public radio broadcasting. Radio Mekete’s mission is educating the public about events occurring in the local Eritrean community as well as discussing topics of events affecting Eritrea. RM strives to create a unique community resource, one that promotes connections and fosters a sense of belonging. Focus on sharing music, arts, culture, news and opinions; and serving the community by providing outlets for their creative skills and energies. There is also community owned and operated Radio Mekete in Chicago, serving the greater Mid-West area.
Voice of Eritrea (VOE) is a community radio that serves the interests of the Eritrean community in Washington DC and its surrounding area. Voice of Eritrea is solely owned by the community and as such the participation and support of the community is paramount to the success of the radio programming. On 15 February 2014, VoE will be celebrating its 16th Anniversary.
Medeb Siyasa is a podcast created by the YPFDJ for everyone. The topics covered will deal with current affairs, history and of course, all of this in the Eritrean context. As it is a youth focused podcast of course the participants are for the most part, the youth, striving to offer fresh perspectives.
There are many more across the United States. In Europe, there is an even more advanced Eritrean information infrastructure that is global, in use. Here are a few examples of community owned and run radio and television programs: Radio Dimtsi Eritrea Gotenbourg, TV Dimzi Eritrea Stockholm, TV Rahawana Stockholm, Voice of Eritrea Stuttgart, Dimtsi Eritrea Gothenbourg and Radio Mekete Mannheim…still compiling the list of Eritrean community radio and television programs as well as the many publications produced and disseminated by the vast Eritrean Diaspora.
Eritreans everywhere also have access to print media. The popular national newspapers Al-Hadisa in the Arabic language and Haddas Eritrea in the Tigrinya language are published daily.Eritrea Profile is an English language paper published twice a week and Eritrea Haddas, is a weekly Tigre language paper. But that is not all that is found in Eritrea. There are many publications that are widely read and are extremely useful sources of news and information. Menisey, Tirigta and Geled are produced by the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students, Agizo-A publication of the National Union of Eritreans Women (NUEW), Hidri-A publication of the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice, TeaTek-A publication of the Eritrean Armed Forces, Hizbn police is a publication of the Eritrean Police Force (EPF). Similarly, there are publications from the Ministry of Education and other ministries. There are also publishing firms in Eritrea that help reduce the cost of publications and encourage Eritreans to produce learning and other materials and they have.
There are also numerous well written books written by Eritreans available all over the world, so information is not scarce in Eritrea-or Eritreans…it is wide and varied. Speaking of books, did you know that the oldest book written by an African was written by an Eritrean? Well it was. The author is Gebreyesus Hailu (1906–1993) was a prominent and influential figure in the cultural and intellectual life of Eritrea during the Italian colonial period and in the post-Italian era in Africa. Hailu’s novel, The Conscript, is based on a true story of Eritrean conscripts deployed to Libya by the Italians, whom Hailu met on his way to study in Italy. Tigrinya title: ንዝተዓስከረ ንዓሓደ መንእሰይ ዘርኢ፤ ሓደ፡ ዛንታ። was written in 1927 and first published in 1950, and it has been translated by Ghirmai Negash, a professor of English and African literature at Ohio University, A must have for all Eritreans…a great read for all.
But let’s move on and see how else Eritreans remain informed about the prevailing issues, the pertinent issues of the day.
Eritrean Television (Eri-TV) is available within Eritrea and abroad via satellite dish 24 hours a day. It is streamed live by various Eritrean Diaspora internet sites such as East Afro. It is not an easy task to run a television station and there are hundreds of Eritreans working round the clock to produce the variety of programming that is now available on Eritrean television. The Diaspora Eritreans are actively engaged, not just as viewers but also as producers of programs for Eri-TV.
This week marked the 24th Anniversary of the Liberation of Eritrea’s Port City of Massawa and along with the various activities broadcast live from Eritrea via satellite, the various Eritrean websites around the world and the thousands of pictures and stories shared on Facebook and Twitter enabled both Eritreans and others, especially Africans, to learn more about Eritrea, its people and its struggles. Commemoration events to celebrate the anniversary of Operation Fenkil took place in Washington, DC and in cities across the United States, Europe and Africa.
The extraordinary footage taken then by the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF), the interviews with those who participated it that battle, the footage of the Ethiopian regime’s brutal bombings of the liberated city etc. kept us all glued to our television and computer screens all week. There is much more to tell about Eritrea’s long and arduous struggle and the tenacity and perseverance of her people and the yet to be exhausted EPLF archives, which house thousands of hours of raw footage and volumes of print documentation, Eritreans can, and will rely on them, to continue to tell the Eritrean story for generations to come.
Here is an anniversary of one the most extraordinary and decisive battles for the liberation of Eritrea, and yet, those who claim they are here to provide “news and information” were conspicuously absent. As if to add insult to injury, the NED-funded Reporters San Frontiers decided to release its 2014 Press Index and had the audacity to tell its readers that “freedom of information is non-existent” and that Eritrea was one of the “news and information black holes”. By that, if RSF is telling its readers that there are no western owned media entities in Eritrea, then they are correct. If they are harping about the “independent Press” that were shut down in 2001, they have noon but themselves to blame. As has been discussed ad nauseum in various forums, they were not shut down because they were presenting “dissenting voices”. Rather, they were shut down because they seized being “independent”
But if RSF is trying to tell its readers that the people of Eritrea are deprived of “news and information”, it would not only be a deliberate distortion of the reality in Eritrea, but this author would venture and bet that the Eritrean people are the most informed population in the world, especially on matters related to Eritrea. So RSFs continuous rants about Eritrea are disingenuous and obviously politically motivated. They are not only condescending, patronizing, and racist but also an insult to the people of Eritrea. The facts on the ground speak volumes about “news and information” in Eritrea, and the people, who are the true owners of media in Eritrea. It is one thing for RSF to say that it does not know about “news and information” in Eritrea, but to say that it does not exist akin to denying Eritrea’s existence and development-something the Eritrean people, including the vast Diaspora population can easily dispel and debunk. So who are they trying to hoodwink? The American and European public? Other Africans? It is a futile endeavor as the truth cannot be suppressed…not even with massive funding.
John Swinton, called by his peers “The Dean of his Profession”, was the former Chief of Staff for the New York Times. He was asked to give a toast before the New York Press Club in 1953. He is quoted as saying the following about the “independent press”:
“…There is no such thing, at this date of the world’s history, in America, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar weekly salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone. The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth; to lie outright; to pervert; to vilify; to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities, and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes…”
RSF and other anti-Eritrea entities continuously harp about Eritrean media and claim that they are “government run” as if that is a bad word. Is the BBC not a government owned outfit? Who really owns the mainstream media? That is another topic for another day but for today, suffice it to say that in Eritrea, the people of Eritrea, including those who serve tirelessly and selflessly in government contribute to provide “news and Information” through regular seminars and workshops, talk shows and meetings at the village and city levels, are owners and contributors of the “news and media” in Eritrea. Ditto for the Diaspora Eritreans who have constant and regular meetings with the Embassy and visiting Eritrean officials. So to suggest that Eritreans are in the dark is simply wrong. Eritreans all over the world enjoy access to other media too. The satellite channels are available in Eritrea and in the major cities, everyone seems to have access to them. There is no government censorship and the internet, albeit slow, is available to all.
Allow me to end this preliminary look at Eritrea’s information and news infrastructure with this from an article written by Elias Amare, a journalist living in Eritrea in 2001:
“…What are the lessons to be learned for our times from the legacy of Wel-Wel [Aboy Woldeab Woldemariam] and the two great Eritrean national papers, Hanti Eritra and Dehai Eritra? The first lesson is obvious: For a newspaper to be viable and flourish, it must represent the national interest of the country. No newspaper could be considered independent while it receives financial backing from foreign sources and advocates issues contrary to the national interest. Wel-Wel was a fierce nationalist, first and foremost, and he rejected all kinds of foreign interventions in Eritrea’s internal affairs and he steadfastly refused to be corrupted and bribed by Haile Selassie’s money. Secondly, national newspapers must have a serious commitment to journalistic integrity, fairness, objectivity and must have a balance in their news coverage as well as editorials. Memhir Wolde’ab Woldemariam has left us a high standard of journalistic tradition that any newspaper aspiring to national status must adhere to…”
So as we move into the future, we look forward to developing Eritrea’s “news and information” infrastructures by increasing human resource capacity, training more high caliber journalists and utilizing technologies available to produce material worthy of our heritage and history…
 Paul D. Fallon, ’10: Language Development in Eritrea,’ in Sustaining Linguistic Diversity: Endangered and Minority Languages and Language Varieties, ed. Kendall A. King, Natalie Schilling-Estes, Jia Jackie Lou, Lyn Fogle, and Barbara Soukup (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2008), 154