Eritrea has internet

The assessment is devastating: As in the past five years, "Reporters Without Borders" placed Eritrea in the bottom of its list of press freedom for 2012, which was published today. Nowhere else in the world does the organization see worse conditions for journalists overall.

In contrast to other negative examples such as Syria, North Korea or China the small East African country is otherwise hardly noticed internationally. Few are committed to changing the situation, including the exile station Radio Erenawhich has been broadcasting from Paris since 2009. Journalist Amanuel Ghirmai has also been working there since 2010. Like many compatriots, he left Eritrea a few years ago for political reasons and is now trying - with the support of Reporters Without Borders - to bring independent information back to his homeland.

SZ.de: How do you explain the situation of press freedom in the country to someone who doesn't know anything about Eritrea?

Amanuel Ghirmai: We became independent from Ethiopia in the early 1990s, but a dictatorship emerged. In 2001, President Isayas Afewerki had everyone who was against him arrested, including journalists - and Eritrea has been at the bottom since then.

What makes the situation in Eritrea even worse than in countries like North Korea or trouble spots like Syria??

Many actually call Eritrea the African North Korea. We don't have any private media in the country. There is exactly one television station, one radio station and one newspaper - and they belong to the government. People have no right to express their opinion. It's a closed country, we call it a big prison.

What are you trying to achieve with your exile radio?

We believe people should know. There are many remote villages that have no idea what is going on in the government. Information could be a step towards change.

What does your program look like exactly?

We send the latest news every day, there is politics, economy, social issues. But we also deal with everyday worries of Eritreans and we talk a lot about the refugees. You know, there are only about four million people living in Eritrea and an extremely large number of people are leaving the country: there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Israel and so on. This should not be like that! We deal with all of these topics.

How does your personal story influence your work as a journalist in exile?

At first I worked for the Ministry of Information in Eritrea - I had no choice as there was no private media. So I started there after graduating from university. But I felt like I was serving a dictator. As a journalist it was unbearable for me and I left the country. At Radio Erena in Paris I now have the feeling that I am doing my job in an ethically appropriate manner and thus serving the interests of the people.

For the sixth time in a row Reporters without borders Eritrea in last place in terms of freedom of the press - do you personally see no improvement at all?

On the contrary, it keeps getting worse. It started with journalists going to jail. More and more of us are now leaving the country and going into exile. That shows that things are still going downhill.

How do you manage to keep in touch with people in Eritrea?

Internet access in Eritrea is very limited and internal and external telephone calls are controlled. It's very difficult, but we manage to get at least some information from the country. You can't do that over the phone, but there are a few other options, the Internet being one of them.

The Internet was seen as an opportunity for freedom, especially in the Arab Spring.

This is only partially the case in Eritrea. For the diaspora, that is, for the Eritreans in exile. But in the country itself, access is extremely limited. So online social networks are difficult to create here. But there are also Eritrean ways.

What do you mean by that?

Eritreans communicate with each other when they meet, for example at weddings and funerals. These are opportunities to talk about the current situation. There are no gatherings and there is no right to demonstrate in Eritrea. But at private parties, people talk, including what is going on in the government. Such conversations could eventually turn into a rebellion.

So the personal conversations are almost the only thing that remains at the moment?

Almost the only thing, yes. Together with the few options available via the Internet and programs such as Radio Erena, broadcast via shortwave and satellite. The government began massively disrupting our broadcasts last August. Since the beginning of this year we have been reaching our listeners again through a different provider and a new frequency.

Is it frustrating for you when the international attention only falls on Eritrea once a year because it is back at the bottom of the ranking?

To be honest: yes. We feel that the country should be in a different position, especially with the conditions we once had.

Where could hope most likely come from in the next few years - from inside or outside, for example from external media such as Radio Erena?

We from Radio Erena are not the opposition. Our role is only to inform the population. Information can of course be a means. But we believe it would be good for people's sovereignty if the change came from within. There is indeed a glimmer of hope. A few days ago we received news that the military had taken over the Ministry of Information and, among other things, demanded the release of political prisoners.

What will be the next show you broadcast to Eritrea today?

We will talk about the events of January 21st in Asmara, about the rebellious signals from the army. So we will report on what we hear from there and how the people in exile react to it. We were the first to get this message. We cannot of course disclose any further details about our sources, but they are reliable for us and we are now trying to pass this information on.

Not everyone thinks of rankings like the Reporters Without Limits Press Freedom Index. What do you say to critics who doubt that the situation for journalists in Eritrea is supposed to be even worse than in countries like Syria or North Korea, that such a thing can even be compared in this way?

If the criticism came from the government in Asmara, I would say: Open up and allow controls. At least let us know who is in the prisons and who died there. Those who go to prison in Eritrea are not even allowed to visit their relatives. We don't know where many of them have gone. If the criticism comes from abroad, I would say: try it yourself. Try to go to Eritrea and report something there. You will get the answer right from the embassy.

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