During the struggle for Eritrea’s independence, with the gag order on any information on Eritrea in academia and in the mainstream media in place, it may have been difficult, but it was not impossible for Eritreans to get information about the liberation movement and developments in Eritrea.
The few landlines that were available in Eritrea at that time meant that news from home was still slow in coming and Eritreans were at the mercy of the mainstream media for information. But that changed when the Eritrean Diaspora decided to help with the establishment of the Voice of the Masses (DimtsiHafash) in 1979. Taped reports and faxes of reports, were distributed widely throughout the Eritrean Diaspora communities and Eritreans were able to get direct information from the ground.
Today, the Eritrean Diaspora is forefront of Eritrea’s presence in cyberspace.
Reading the reports about news and information in and about Eritrea, one would get the impression that they were talking about a country that is much older than its very young 24 years. Eritrea became independent in 1991 and two years later, in 1993, the referendum was conducted in 1993. In the two years following the end of the liberation war in 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) formed a Provisional Government, issued the Referendum Proclamation that established the Referendum Commission, and set out to prepare for the Referendum vote. It registered eligible voters inside the country and in the Diaspora, and issued Eritrean Identification cards to its citizens around the world.
It should be recalled that the referendum was conducted in cities across the United States, Europe and in Africa. There were also polling stations in Ethiopia. The voice of the Eritrean people was heard loud and clear after being distorted, muffled and silenced for over 50 years.
Tim Wise, Director of Grassroots International in his article “Eritrea’s Referendum on Independence – the meaning of a free vote” wrote:
“… If I hadn’t seen the process with my own eyes, such a result would have been hard to believe. But traveling the countryside as an official non-governmental observer from Grassroots International, I observed the voting at several different polling stations. Everywhere, the story was the same. Despite having three days to vote, virtually everyable-bodied voter in the country’s 1.1 million electorate braved long lines and a searing desert sun to vote on the first day of balloting. Overall turnout was estimated to be about 98%, including over 90% on the first day….It mayhave been the most elaborate process in history every carried out to achieve a foregone conclusion. The independent Referendum Commission of Eritrea could easily have gone through the motions of democratic process. In a country arguably born as the poorest on earth, few could have faulted them. Instead, they made the referendum a national rite rite of passage, a sacred right for each Eritrean voter to tell the world — peacefully and democratically — their answer to the question no one asked for forty years… One U.S. observer from the U.N. told me afterward, he never would have believed such a result if he hadn’t witnessed the process himself. Another U.N. observer told me she had never seen such a meticulous process…”
There were 1010 polling stations and the results of 99.8% vote for independence dispelled any doubts about the wishes of the population. All this preceded the active presence of the Eritrean Diaspora on the internet.
It was shortly after the referendum that the Eritrean Community Online Network, DEHAI.org was established in 1993. It was the very first online Eritrean site the Diaspora was able to use to share information and news with each other and it was also an opportunity to share information and ideas with the wider internet community- to introduce Eritrea through the Eritrean lens.
DEHAI became the primary source for news and information on and about Eritrea. For $20 per year, DEHAIers, who came from all walks of life and economic backgrounds, shared opinions and information with the “DEHAI family” which grew in leaps and bounds and its reach became global.
The interesting part of this development was that the internet was not even available in Eritrea at that time. Each year, its members gather for a weekend retreat to exchange views and seek ways to enhance DEHAI. The younger generation who grew up in the DEHAI family continue to use the most innovative technologies available to maintain the site and its archives, a treasure-trove in Eritrea’s post independence history.
Eritrean websites soon followed and today with the introduction of powerful internet tools such as WordPress, Joomla, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc… the Eritrean media landscape has expanded exponentially… worldwide communication has been greatly enhanced and today, the mainstream media is being rigorously challenged by Eritrean Diaspora communities using these mediums, to produce accurate information and news about Eritrea, its people and its government on a daily basis. Gone are the days when corporate media had the monopoly on information and news.
Social media has opened up new opportunities for citizen journalists and Eritrean Diaspora is using the opportunity to produce timely information on Eritrea and contents that are appealing to a growing audience, as evidenced by the number of their followers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others.
No doubt there are huge gaps in Internet access within and between nations and regions. Internet access is still not at optimum levels in most developing countries, and has a long way to go in Eritrea. And even in the developed states, not every one has access. For the Eritrean Diaspora, in cases where access is available, there are many “old timers” who still insist on the printed press and have resisted using the internet, and there are some that simply cannot afford it. But it is a different story on social media. It seems this platform is garnering the attention of the former internet naysayers. For the younger generation, it has become an indispensable tool for communication with families and friends at home and across states and continents. Long lost ties have been found through Facebook and other such sites and cyber Eritrea is flourishing.
Should there be concerns about access, availability and connectivity for all? William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute says:
“… Along the access divide, the economic ‘haves’ generally get more access to the Internet than the ‘have-nots’. This underpins concerns that the Internet reinforces socioeconomic inequalities in society. Despite these continuing digital divides, the Internet has achieved a critical mass that enables networked individuals to become a significant force. The existence of a Fifth Estate is not dependent on universal access, but upon reaching a critical mass of users…”
The Eritrean Diaspora has come a long way and may be close to reaching that “critical mass”…
Social media is enabling Eritreans to widen their reach and provide an alternative source of news and information about Eritrea, and these daily postings are in turn molding public discourse on Eritrea, as well as providing invaluable insight into Eritrea’s nation building strategies.
The Eritrean voices are now being heard globally and Eritrea is being showcased daily in pictures, videos, poems and proverbs as well as interesting and provocative articles by passionate writers, who have been able to influence public opinion and guide discussions, once dominated by mainstream media.
Eritrean society is a highly organized society and its most incredible accomplishments preceded the advent of the internet. From conducting an unparalleled liberation struggle to its post-independence economic, social and political development, Eritrea relies the most on the commitment and ingenuity of its people, its strong cultures and traditions, its principled policies and strong vision.
It is an insult to the Eritrean people in Eritrea, and those in the Diaspora, to measure their knowledge and expertise, and most importantly their political astuteness on whether or not there is internet availability or connectivity in Eritrea.
As a matter of fact, in this author’s humble opinion, it is not Eritreans that are suffering from “information deficit”, but rather it is the “wired world” that is missing out on a ground breaking nation building enterprise taking place… offline.