Five tips on censorship from very bad boy Eritrea, the least connected nation on Earth

Less than 1% of the Eritrean population goes online. If you want the ultimate master class in controlling information, head to Asmara.

ERITREA has once again topped a world list of country’s for media repression, this time in relation to censorship. This according to a ranking compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) of the 10 countries where the press is most restricted, based on research into the use of tactics by governments. The list put Eritrea first, beating even North Korea, with the next African country on the list being Eritrea’s “brother in war” Ethiopia in 4th position.  

This may not come as a surprise to many since the Horn of Africa country has developed a reputation as a press bad boy over the years. The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2014 World Press Freedom Index has ranked Eritrea last out of 180 countries for the 7th successive year. 

But how this small African nation got so good at media repression is relatively straightforward, with the government implementing what appears to be a system of carefully constructed checks and balances - keeping the reins tight, while trying to ensure the local population doesn’t clock on. 

Blame the shut down of independent press on the CIA 

There is no doubt that the state is controlling the press as much as it possibly can. In 2001 the country’s president, Isaias Afewerki, shut down all privately-owned media telling Swedish broadcaster TV4 in 2009 that “there were no private media…The CIA would finance newspapers, hire journalists, open bank accounts for them outside the country and give them what they have to write in their papers. This is not media.” By blaming the CIA Afwerki effectively gagged the free press whilst fuelling the anti-Western propaganda machine. 

As a result, today there are no free or independent news media structures - the last accredited international correspondent was expelled in 2007 - and what is “media” are government-run outlets operating under tight supervision. 

According to the Human Rights Watch, although foreign language transmissions are accessible, the government jammed Al-Jazeera in early 2013 and has long jammed overseas transmissions from Eritrea diaspora stations.

Make it painfully difficult to access websites

The internet was made available in Eritrea in 2000 and less than 1% of the Eritrean population goes online, meaning virtually all of the country has been excluded from the digital age. 

The net vacuum has occurred due to a combination of slow internet and restrictions on access. For example, Telecom operator EriTel, which owns the net’s infrastructure, is directly controlled by the government. Therefore, all mobile communications must go through EriTel, and all internet service providers must use the government-controlled gateway. To enjoy private access, Eritreans need to obtain special authorisation from the government, meaning most Eritreans have to access the internet from the 40 or so internet cafes, most of which are located in Asmara.

In terms of mobile access, the regime was slow to allow mobile phones in the first place with permission only granted in 2004. Currently, just 6% of Eritreans own mobile phones and, according to CPJ, mobile internet is still largely unavailable.

An additional barrier is that the cost of the internet is very high and it is painfully slow. There are reports that a monthly fixed broadband subscription costs $1,951.67 (compare to Rwanda where you can get it for $25 or Kenya at $30 a month). Since EriTel is directly controlled by the government, network surveillance and slowing down bandwidth speed are relatively easy tasks and the government uses this to discourage internet use. 

Keep them intimidated 

Nothing makes for good censorship like good old fashioned effective intimidation. At 22, Eritrea has the most jailed journalists in Africa, with none of those arrested taken to court. The fear of arrest is so strong that even state media journalists are known to have fled the country claiming intimidation or  fear of arbitrary imprisonment. 

Intimidation also works for the internet since, according to RSF, internet cafes are often monitored, particularly during periods of social unrest, or when compromising news about the regime is circulating abroad. Officials are known to have shut cafes down, arresting the owners.

Be a party pooper

Public communication in the form of face-to-face contact can be a dangerous challenge - so the government has censored that too. 

Assembly during religious festivals and national celebrations is tightly policed. Permits are required for public gatherings of more than seven people, and non-compliance is not tolerated.

Ability to shut things down, quickly 

Lack of consistent, high-level government commitment to structural reform continues to hamper the country’s economic prospects - in fact, economic growth is estimated to have fallen sharply to 1.1% in 2013 from 7% the previous year and is projected to have progressed only slightly to 1.9% in 2014. 

This stagnating growth has seen a lack of investment in the energy sector meaning electricity generation is extremely unreliable and only available in Eritrea’s larger cities and towns, leaving about 80% of the Eritrean population without access. 

While this is the main reason for extensive power-cuts, there are also reports that suggest that government censorship is so deep that it will flex its control over power supply in extreme situations. According to independent news site, Asmarino Independent, “Whenever a crisis seems to brew with a major news breakout, the regime has used this most crude but effective tactic: unplug the electric power to the entire city.”

Electricity supplies aren’t the only thing the government is able to shut-down quickly. In January 2013 the state was able to quickly turn off the state television service, which is broadcast from inside the headquarters of the Ministry of Information.

Reports of what took place vary though there are claims that the channel’s leading news presenter appeared on air and read out a brief statement calling for the implementation of the 1997 constitution and release of political prisoners. The channel then went dead for the whole day before returning to normal service as if nothing had happened. 

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