Eritrea: “Reader Discretion Advised”

News Opinions Sophia Tesfamariam
how the mainstream media seemed to have found itself in a quandary
While the Tour de France presented another opportunity to learn about Eritrea and its people, there were the unscrupulous that wanted to present this event as an anomaly in the country. This is how the mainstream media seemed to have found itself in a quandary. How could the Eritrea that it had defamed and misrepresented in its narratives produce athletes of such caliber?

By Sophia Tesfamariam,

The war for Eritrea’s independence produced a large Eritrean Diaspora which has recently also seen the addition of new migrants, who are finding their niche in the various communities, eking out a living for themselves, and trying to support families in the homeland. This large, tight-knit Diaspora population has very strong links with Eritrea and over the years, has watched as many well-meaning, and some ill-intentioned and ill-advised individuals and groups, presumed to define them, and worse, try to build a wedge between them and their country of origin, Eritrea. The assault on the Eritrean Diaspora and by extension, its compatriots inside Eritrea, was multi-pronged and the mainstream media played a huge role in the effort to destabilize Eritrea, exposing media fault lines in journalism ethics, especially when the subject was Eritrea.

The Tour de France and the presence of Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus, the first Black Africans to participate in the Tour’s over a century long history has brought Eritrea back into the front pages of some major publications, radio and television around the world. Eritrea also spike in social media as the faces of the two cyclists served as profile and cover photos.

While this presented another opportunity to learn about the country and its people, there were the unscrupulous that wanted to present this event as an anomaly in Eritrea. The mainstream media seemed to have found themselves in a quandary. Could the Eritrea that they had defamed and misrepresented in their narratives produce athletes of such caliber?

Content to downplay the significance of the achievements by the two Eritreans, it was only after Daniel Teclehaimanot captured the polka dot jersey and the “King of the Mountain” title, that the story garnered the attention it deserved.

Despite the coverage, there was still some reluctance to report the positive story on Eritrea without inserting some negativity – a poor attempt at balance. Imagine if a journalist was reporting on the recent United States women’s national soccer team win and inserted something about the rape of women in the US military, the Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison tortures, and the controversial extraordinary renditions, or the police shooting of young black men in the US, or the recent attacks on Black Churches, would that not spoil the story? Of course it would. These are not lies about the US, but should they be included in telling the story about the soccer team? What makes it worse in the case of the reports on Eritrea, is that none of the allegations against Eritrea have ever been substantiated.

Adam Taylor’s 11 July 2015 article, “Why it matters that Eritrean cyclists are wowing the Tour de France” serves as an example. Taylor begins his report with this:

“…Eritrea isn’t a big place. The East African country has a population of 6 million or so…”

By beginning his report in this manner (many others also guilty), he seems to be telling his readers that Eritrea was “small” and therefore negligible, or worse, that the achievement was also small.

Eritrea is bigger than at least 100 countries in this world. It is at least twice the size of Denmark, 5 times the size of Djibouti and Israel, and 10 times the size of Jamaica. When was the last time that any news about these countries began with an emphasis on their size? And why would size matter?

Eritreans are accustomed to seeing their nation labeled as “tiny” and it is usually done in comparison to Ethiopia, the larger more populous country next door. Eritrea’s size has been used in various narratives in an attempt to elevate Ethiopia’s economic and political stature, and make excuses for its excesses. But is “big” really better, economically, politically or socially? Many researchers say that it is not necessarily so. That size and population alone cannot be determinants for success or failure as several development indices suggest. They have not found evidence that country size (measured as population) matters for economic outcomes.

The five largest countries (by population) in the world are China, India, the United States, Indonesia, and Brazil. Among them, only the United States is said to be a rich country. By contrast, many of the richest countries in the world are small. Of the ten richest countries in the world, in terms of GDP per capita, only four have populations above 1 million. They are the United States (260 million people), Switzerland (7 million), Norway (4 million people), and Singapore (3 million people). Clearly size and prosperity do not go hand in hand. Higher GDP’s also do not accurately reflect the quality of life of the majority. Larger countries do not also systematically offer a higher quality of life. What matters is that judicious policies are put in place to promote equal opportunity and social justice for all.

Adam Taylor diverted the attention of the readers by inserting unrelated information about Eritrea, its people and leadership. Here is what he wrote:

“…The Eritrean government, and many pro-government Eritreans inside the country and in the diaspora, believe that the negative reputation the country has is unfair, that the country’s lack of elections and unimplemented constitution is a justifiable result of its fragile security situation and simmering tensions with Ethiopia…For evidence of what’s going right in Eritrea, these voices often point toward the country’s living standards, noting particularly that it appears to have been the only one to achieve all of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals related to health. Although some experts don’t buy those figures, sporting success is harder to deny…”

The “pro-government” label, it is now become an excuse to dismiss the opinions of Eritreans who disagree with the narratives presented.

The people of Eritrea are the real experts, as they are the only ones that know firsthand if their lives have improved, or not. But is Adam Taylor questioning the findings of the UNDP and other UN agencies that have presence in Eritrea? Would he question the veracity of the information of the UNDP in Ethiopia? Kenya? Uganda? Or elsewhere? Or is his bias towards Eritrea preventing him from accepting that Eritrea has indeed accomplished what others in Sub-Saharan Africa were unable to do?

Adam Taylor writes that “some experts” don’t buy the figures on Eritrea and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but does not name them. Who are these experts? Another case of weasel wording? C. Coville in his 2010 piece about the media explains what weasel words are and why some lazy journalists use them:

“…When someone uses language that implies a definite fact without stating it outright, they’re using weasel words. The most common are when you attribute opinions to unnamed strangers…The writers do not explain who is saying, asking or arguing. Their friends? God? The homeless man outside ranting about the government stealing his thoughts? Who are these people and how numerous are they? What are their qualifications…?”

The truth is, it is Taylor’s previously held bias about Eritrea that prevented him from diligently seeking the truth, and not because he did not have access to it.

There are thousands of Eritreans who have lived in the United States for over 30 years, but would never consider themselves to be experts on the United States. There are thousands of Eritreans around the world, but few would presume to present themselves as experts on Eritrea, yet a journalist who parachutes in and out of Eritrea, or has authored a few articles on Eritrea is considered ‘an expert‘. In other cases it is anthropologists who did stints teaching or researching in Eritrea who are crowned “experts” to the exclusion of Eritreans. This is not just on reports about Eritrea, but it’s the norm for almost every report on Africa. The Africans themselves are never consulted, and in the rare occasions when they are – the ones consulted are the co-opted individuals who are brought in to serve as the “African faces”.

Had Taylor bothered to speak to members of the Eritrean Diaspora – assuming he had no way of reaching those inside of Eritrea – he would have found out that the Eritrean Constitution is a product of very rigorous discussions by the people in Eritrea and in the Diaspora. Eritrea’s political development has been interrupted by Ethiopia’s vicious war of aggression and occupation, but that does not mean that the government and people rested on their laurels and did nothing to advance Eritrea’s development despite the unprecedented challenges posed by external interferences, sabotage, sanctions and war. The work continues. Whilst there are some articles in the Constitution that have not been implemented, but there are many others that are important in advancing the economic and social rights of the Eritrean people, such as access to clean potable water, education and healthcare etc. that have been implemented. Yet, they are rarely mentioned by the naysayers.

Adam Taylor ought to know that it is only the national elections that have not been conducted, but elections at the village level, the people’s assemblies and courts, have been continuously held. The national elections cannot be conducted in a situation of war- occupation by Ethiopia. Neither the Diaspora, nor the people in the country have remained complacent and the work to implement the Constitution continues. It is not the process that is a challenge, but the timing. The constant threat from Ethiopia is not imagined and the continuous saber rattling from the minority regime and its cadres present an imminent threat to Eritrea and its people.

There was another article on Eritrea that raised eyebrows from astute observers. This time from Ian Gordon and in his 10th July 2015 article, “Eritrean rider Natnael Berhane asked Tour of Austria officials not to kick out Branislau Samoilau for racism”, he writes:

“…Eritrean rider Natnael Berhane has urged Tour of Austria officials not to kick out a rival who allegedly racially abused him…The MTN-Qhubeka rider was allegedly called a ‘f*****g n****r’ by Branislau Samoilau as they raced alongside each other on 8 July…”

Allegedly? Really?

According to the dictionary, this adverb is “…used to convey that something is claimed to be the case or have taken place, although there is no proof…”

But in the same article, Ian Gordon wrote:

“…The Belarusian was called to a meeting with the Tour commissioners along with Berhane and apologised, claiming a language problem… A UCI statement said: “The Commissaires’ Jury [at the Tour of Austria] has investigated this matter and has stressed that any racist abuse is wholly unacceptable…The rider has offered to donate one month’s salary to the team’s foundation and all parties were satisfied with this action…Racist abuse in what ever form will not be tolerated by the UCI…”

How is it an allegation when there is an admission of guilt by the perpetrator, in this case Branislau Samoilau? If “The Commissaires’ Jury” has investigated and the perpetrator offered to donate a month’s salary for his racist mutterings, why is it still being reported as an “allegation” by journalists like Ian Gordon? Or is this another case of racial bias or victim bias? Either way, both wrong, both unacceptable. Journalism ethics say every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly. They don’t say one has to like the subject…

Despite the negative media narratives on Eritrea that have prevailed over the last 15 years, it is a great time to be an Eritrean, as much has been learned about nation building and its challenges – but much has also been shared. Henry Blodget says it is the “golden age for journalism” and Eritrea is the beneficiary:

“….Anyone in the world with an Internet connection can now create journalism — and lots of them do. You don’t need a printing press to create and distribute journalism anymore. You don’t need a broadcast network or a radio station. All you need are your eyes, ears, nose, and storytelling and digital publishing tools, the latter of which are included for free on every smartphone. If anyone anywhere publishes an important fact or tells an important story, people will find it and share it. And it will get the attention it deserves…”

In light of the extreme bias against Eritrea in the mainstream media, the operative word is caveat lector – let the reader beware. Fortunately, there are thousands of Eritreans all over the globe and nothing that is written or said in the mainstream media will escape their scrutiny…or challenge.