Type “Eritrea freedom of speech” (without quotes) on Google and hit enter. You will get more than 2.3 million entries, and the majority are likely related to the level of repression on freedom of speech in that northeast African nation. A country that has banned all independent media since 2001 and kept editors of the banned media in incommunicado detention, Eritrea has earned some of the worst titles in the world:
“The most censored country in the world,” (Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 2015; 2019); “the bottom list country for 10 consecutive years in a row” in the Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders, 2007-2017); “the highest jailer of journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa,” (CPJ, 2019); and “the least connected country on earth,” (The Guardian, 2018), etc.
While this has been edited for lack of space, readers are encouraged to connect the dots: “a country led without a constitution”; “construction banned since 2006”; “import and export businesses banned since 2003 where the ruling party’s stores ration basic food items”; “closed the only university since 2006”; “never conducted election with the sitting president in power since 1993”; “nationals cannot leave the country from the age of 5 onwards,” etc., etc.
In today’s Eritrea, journalism as a profession has been effectively categorized as a crime. As a result, nationals who want to work in the profession have been forced into extended hibernation while a few lucky ones have fled the country. That is why I am in exile. That is the reason associations such as PEN Eritrea are founded in exile to serve as point of contacts between the most closed country and the outside world.
(Side note 1: Being a stateless person, few years ago I used to say, “‘home’ is my mailing address,” but now I consider Athens, Ohio, as my home. In every stop, I could not help compare the location I was visiting with the familiar environment of Athens. Only then did I realize how I had adopted Athens over the years. It does serve me as a springboard for my activism and is my sanctuary.)
In such grim state as Eritrea, to quote James Baldwin, since "silence is not only criminal but suicidal,” resistance becomes mandatory.
From mid-October until the first week of November, I travelled to Europe for three weeks and visited five countries for the same purpose. To borrow an expression from Baldwin, “I have been making as much noise as I can.”
At every stop and event, I could not help but notice a row of amused and bewildered listeners who seem to be struggling to imagine a reality that outdoes fiction.
My first stop was at the Frankfurt Book Fair, arguably the world’s biggest and oldest book fair. A book that a colleague and I translated from Tigrinya into English now has been translated into German and was presented at the book fair. Author of the book is an Eritrea-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak, winner of the 2017 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. Isaak, along other 11 colleagues, has been held in incommunicado detention in Eritrea since September 2001.
From Frankfurt, I headed to Malmö, Sweden, to attend an event organized by Malmö City Archives and the Movement Museum. The city of Malmö plans to open a freedom of expression library and name it for Dawit Isaak.
The event was attended by campaigners who have been working for his release; media students from the university; and friends and family members of the journalist. Taking Isaak’s case as point of departure, I spoke on the state of the media in Eritrea.
The seminar was not limited to that topic, however. I was joined by two panelists from PEN Sweden’s Writers-in-Prison Committee and Malmö's sanctuary program fellow, a journalist from Afghanistan. With the rise of populist and ultra-nationalist leaders across the world, our panel highlighted how journalists are increasingly facing difficulty in carrying on their work. As a result of the new trend, censorship and self-censorship, threats and violence have increased, including among previously “safer” countries.
(Side note 2: Although not comparable with countries we discussed such as Eritrea, Afghanistan, Turkey, the Philippines, etc. in the panel, we also mentioned how Donald Trump’s attacks on news media are emboldening repressive regimes to wage an open war against freedom of speech.)
Early the next morning, I flew to Stockholm to attend a book-launching ceremony. Many nations have been taking the lead to accommodate the huge Eritrean diaspora community. Eritrean artists who have been silenced due to their country’s medieval style of censorship are finding their voices in exile and talking back.
Among the four books released that evening was one by a former prisoner of conscience whose poetry collection manuscript has been languishing in the censorship office in Eritrea for the last 11 years.
The Eritrean regime closely follows George Orwell’s (“1984”) script of erasing prisoners of conscience from collective memory. This has been enabled through different mechanisms: the imprisoned editors and others have never been mentioned in the state media and their names could not be said loudly in public places.
Dawit Isaak’s compatriots are defying such impositions, however. Every year they honor and commemorate his birthday in absentia and send messages of encouragement and solidarity. (Of course, there is no way to reach him.) The event serves as a reminder the Swedish citizens and politicians that one of their citizens is spending his birthday – for the 19thtime – behind bars without being charged. He was taken to custody when he was 36 and now he is 55. I attended the gloomy gathering and briefly talked about how Eritrea looks without a free press.
After a visit to see family and friends in Switzerland, I next stopped in Brussels.
The seminar was organized by a Swedish politician who’s a member of the European Parliament (MEP). We discussed the abysmal human-rights situation in Eritrea. We underlined how the highly hyped peace deal with neighboring Ethiopia after 20 years of deadlock has not improved anything in Eritrea, despite widespread hopes that it would. Following our talks, a panel composed of MEPs and the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea was convened. All MEPs were given a copy of Isaak’s book (in English and French) as a reminder to continue pressuring the Eritrean government to release Sweden’s citizen.
PEN Austria, among others, has been at the forefront of advocating for the release of jailed Eritrean journalists. For the third year in a row, it convened the Vienna International Strategic Conference on Human Rights in Eritrea. Two years ago, a book that two colleagues and I co-edited was published in collaboration with PEN Austria. So on this trip I traveled to Vienna to attend the conference and then a book fair. Again, I related the familiar and sad Eritrean story to an unfamiliar audience.
After three intensive but fulfilling weeks, as I flew back to the U.S., I reassured myself: Resistance, as in the case of Eritrea, is not an option but a mandate.
When I reached Toronto for my connecting flight to Columbus, as my phone service was connected, I received numerous texts, many of them reminders of outstanding bills. I said to myself, “Home is where you pay the bills and do your duties.”
*(Ed: When asked to write the standard one-line bio, Ohio University Ph.D. candidate Abraham Zere responded, “If they read the piece, what else is left about me?” but assured me that he is not an undocumented immigrant.)