York PEN members Jonathan Tait and Miranda Whitmarsh interview Eritrean human rights activist Eyob Ghilazghy about the imprisionment of journalists and attacks on freedom of speech by the Eritrean government.
Eyob Ghilazghy is an Eritrean national. He is the founding member of PEN Eritrea. He obtained a Msc in Sustainable Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Eyob in his own words says that his status as a defender of human rights came about coincidentally. He worked as a humanitarian and development worker in Eritrea between the years of 2001 and 2007, when he was detained and tortured in his own nation. Eritrea boasts the spurious honour of having the worst rated freedom of speech in the world for eight years running, and was condemned for its human rights abuses in a damning 2015 report by the United Nations. Since his freedom he fled to Asmara with an intent ‘not to keep quiet’ about the conditions and treatment he received. He started writing in order to exposes Eritrea’s secrets from inside its own borders, and his experiences have been a driving force to study in a discipline of natural science, in order to help craft a better society, economy, and environment.
In an article on the Index on Censorship website in September, 2016, Abraham Zere wrote,
‘With the state media parroting ceaseless propaganda and hate-filled editorials, citizens have mastered a special skill: how to read between the lines. Most Eritreans do not listen to what the president says in his regular, repetitious interviews with the national media. Rather they read his gestures, listen to his tone and scan his appearance to get a feel for the state of the country.’
Would you agree that Eritreans are good at ‘reading between the lines’ kept by the state-owned media?
Not particularly, I doubt that they can. I have not read the article, but if he is referring to how and what Eritreans are presented with, no. First of all, there is no such freedom of reading in Eritrea because there is a limited supply of materials for people to read. Referring to the statements of the President, if that is what is he referring to, I doubt the majority would be able to. Most of the time the President, in his statements tries to be abstract. 80-90% of the interview will cover projects like ‘we are building a road from here to there’, ‘we are building a dam’, ‘we are building houses’, ‘we are doing agricultural activities’, like it is a project manager reporting to his boss. The other part on foreign issues like ‘America is doing this’, ‘the west is doing this’, sometimes he speaks about democracy and elections describing them as western concepts uselessly employed to destabilize and destroy the third world countries. So no, I wouldn’t agree with that.
What do Eritreans do if they want non-state sanctioned news?
If we are to talk about Eritreans inside the country, they have very limited access to alternative sources because there is no private media in Eritrea and the press is monopolised by the state. So, internet availability is almost non-existent in Eritrea, people don’t and can’t get news through it. Language is an issue, there is a language barrier too. If people have the skill to understand languages used in international matters they have some access to coverage. If you only speak the local language, you will struggle as there is no alternative independent media in the local language. There are a few diasporic media outlets that broadcast to Eritrea. Radio Erena is one of them. Radio Erena based in France broadcasts to Eritrea through satellite, people can listen to that. There is also Radio Wegahta, station based in Ethiopia where in the past its broadcasts was widely listened to in the Eritrean army. There are short fifteen minute radio programs called ‘The Voice of America’ which some people listen in to. There are few people that speak Arabic and they can pursue it news in that language, but there is nothing in the local language. I would say there is very limited access to alternatives.
And do you subscribe to the view that internet availability is kept deliberately precarious in order to prevent subversive discussion and action?
Yes, for sure. This is for sure. The fact that the high officials for themselves have very good internet services but the rest don’t proves this. The other thing that makes me believe that it is intentionally precarious is that the productive sector of the society is not allowed to own a mobile phone, when I say the ‘productive sector’ I mean people from the age of about 18 through to about 50 who are in the national service. They are not allowed to have a telephone or a telephone number and this is done to purposefully limit the exchange of information. The young below the ages of 18 cannot have telephones either, only the elderly and those exempt from National Service would be allowed to have a mobile. When I was in Eritrea, I did not qualify for a mobile phone, so what I did to gain access, somebody got a phone in their name and allowed me to use it; but if I, or anyone was caught, it is a criminal offence for both the user and the supplier. For this reason, I believe it is kept precarious to limit opposition.
How much do you personally risk to be part of PEN Eritrea?
Very much, very much. I don’t know if there are any other people who are members of PEN Eritrea near me. Most are from outside Africa, I think I am the only one in Africa. It carries risk with it, the law enforcement bodies protecting the organization are either weak or corrupt, I risk very much to work as I do.
How can PEN societies around the world help the appalling status of free speech in Eritrea, as well as those imprisoned for exercising those human rights?
The PEN Family can help by advocating human rights and coordinating and showing their voices loudly wherever they go. Workshops, meetings, I see solidarity, collaboration, and determination to advocate and help wherever I go. I would advise PEN families to build and continue on that. The only challenge I see is coordination between the different PEN centres and a limited leadership. Once are out of the workshops concentrated towards Eritrea the agenda is tabled until the next event. If there could be someone working and coordinating regularly that would be of great help.
The way I Imagine it is this. We have PEN centres in Africa, and on every continent. Every centre is willing to support the cause and subscribe to statements. But, there is no continuous focus. International forums should be used to voice the concerns and raise awareness to world leaders and the international community to do something in Eritrea.
Do international prizes for journalism, art and photography help to draw attention to the plight of those suffering for freedom of speech, or do you consider them empty gestures?
They aren’t empty gestures. One of the many tools that we have to use, we require a multi-pronged approach, we need to continue using it, but this needs to be used alongside the above.
Could Eritrea’s government release imprisoned journalists without embarrassment? Would it be taken as a symbolic concession towards those arguing for freedom of expression?
I would say if they released them it would not be an embarrassment because the government are shameless. But the issue I see is how many of them are alive now, and how they handle that. I wouldn’t consider their release to be a sign of progress towards greater freedom of expression, but I would consider it to be a gesture to ease the international pressures on the government. They released some prisoner journalists from arrests in 2013-2014 who had been in jail since 2009 but nothing improved, they were released on bail, prisoners were still told not to say anything, some have escaped and some are still in Eritrea. Even when they open the door they were still prohibited to express themselves on the matter. It would be about easing pressure, not about improving the situation.
Eyob Ghilazghy is also the founder of Africa Monitors, a human rights organisation based in Uganda. In 2013, Eyob was trying to establish an organisation that would work on Eritrea’s issues with human rights violations and more broadly throughout Africa, aiding asylum seekers and displaced peoples in being able to navigate the bureaucratic confusions and difficulties of applying for help and registering appropriately. Since then, Africa Monitors despite a lack of consistent funding and teething problems due to the occasionally life-threatening and frequently dangerous situation in exposing the Eritrean government has been successfully pursuing research, documenting human rights violations both outside and inside Eritrea. They operate a forum for asylum seekers and refugees on the move, in which they can discuss their problems, advice and help can be coordinated and disseminated on what to do, where to go, where the greatest risks are posed. Their mission statement is to empower displaced people with the tools to aid their survival and help them reach safety.