The Underlying Motives of the BBC World Trip to Eritrea. Can We Still Trust the BBC?

News Opinions
BBC’s Preconceived Conclusions on Eritrea Contradict Realities on the Ground

By Ray Ja,

I HAVE been following the ongoing coverage of the BBC’s exclusive trip to “secretive” Eritrea, and the following are some initial thoughts that arose as I watched and listened to the BBC’s various reports. Overall, the BBC failed to provide its audience with a contextualized, objective view of the country or situation. Instead, it presented an account that was quite cursory, rehashed many clichéd, facile assumptions, and thus left the audience with a flawed perspective. 

In some instances, the BBC’s tone and approach were colonial and ethnocentric. For example, one host repeatedly stated (in a positive, agreeable manner) how the country was “built” by Italians, but when discussing “problems” (in a negative, condescending style) the host attributed these solely to the shortcomings of the locals.

Unfortunately, such a flippant, dismissive manner of speech and tone smacks of outdated, colonial rhetoric. Are we to simply believe that good, positive things only emanate from Europe or the West, and that only negative things can be found in Africa? To be sure, the infrastructure, roads, railways, etc. across the country were built by the blood, sweat, and tears of countless Eritreans (many dying in the process). Furthermore, indirectly attributing the various challenges within the country to the locals (true to an extent, no doubt), fails to acknowledge the harmful (and ongoing) negative, nearly debilitative, effects of colonialism, imperialism, and apartheid within Eritrea (and across the developing Global South).

Comparatively, the BBC’s approach, in a different context, would overlook the harmful legacy of slavery in the US upon today’s African-American community, the unfortunate plight of Haiti after centuries of plunder by the US and France, or the continued sad state of Bangladesh after its experience under the British Empire.

As well, the BBC was rather ethnocentric in its perspective, especially evident in its discussion of Eritrea’s wefera system, which it foolishly likened to slavery. Far from slavery, wefera is instead a widely-practice system that has been found in Eritrea for generations (in Sudan, it is known as nafir).

Wefera is a traditional form of solidarity and community, involving a pattern of collective participation and group efforts to assist friends, neighbors, the elderly, women, and vulnerable groups and households. One manifestation of the system involves the village, group, and community coming together to build houses, or a micro-dam, or conduct farming, weeding, trashing, etc. activities. This cooperative, pragmatic, lively method of social organization promotes solidarity, strengthens ties within the community, and it generally improves the standards of living for all members of the group.

As well, the system extends to shimagilles (which involves elders coming together to promote and work toward maintaining harmony and peace amongst the community); sanduk or equb (a system of sharing, rotation, and distribution of monetary savings within the group and village); and women’s gatherings (which include coffee-making and drinking, cooking and eating, fetching wood, and various small business practices).

Instead of offering its audience an objective, ethnographic-like account of Eritrea’s wefera system, thus sharing a rich, vibrant communal practice, the BBC chose to don its colonial-tinted spectacles and pass a harsh, wayward judgment. Sadly, in a global era characterized by individualism, mass consumerism, corporate avarice, and neoliberalism, a traditional, grassroots, community-based system promoting collective gain and solidarity was maybe just too different.

Additionally, the BBC was quite specious in the way it decried the media in the country. Surely the BBC can’t be overly concerned with the topic since Eritrea’s neighbors’ own approach to media is deplorable, yet the BBC fails to utter even a scintilla of criticism.

It was quite telling that the BBC reporters seemed almost distraught when learning that the Internet and global media services in Eritrea are fully functional, with no censorship or blockages. Such facts confirm that countless western analysts, intellectuals, observers, so-called (or self-titled) rights watchdogs, and yes even “top-level” media outlets like the BBC, were either misinformed or chose to mislead and “disinform” their audiences when suggesting Eritrea engages in censorship and blocking practices.

At this point, it would represent good journalistic practice (and display true objectivity) if the BBC (and others) corrected their innumerable false reports of Eritrea in this regard. Moreover, if the BBC were truly concerned with exploring the topics of censorship and blockages, it would have saved itself the trip to Asmara, and instead posed questions of its own government, the UK, which not only is an active proponent of spying and hacking activities, but also funds and is BFF (i.e. best friends forever) with countries across the Horn of Africa and MENA region that blow-up, flog, maim, spy, hack, and censor journalists and media.

It was quite unfortunate to see how the BBC host downplayed (nearly overlooking) Eritrea’s various (and numerous) achievements in an array of economic, social, and health sectors. Then to farcically compound things, the host went on to almost mock the fact that the local outlets had the “gumption” to actually cover these achievements.

Really, such an approach by the BBC is hardly surprising, and fits a clear pattern evident within the BBC’s larger body of work. Recently, John Pilger described how researchers at the University of the West of England in the UK studied the BBC’s systematic bias in reporting Venezuela over a ten-year period. They looked at 304 BBC reports and found that only three of these referred to any of the positive policies of the government. For the BBC, Venezuela’s food programmes, healthcare initiatives and poverty reduction programmes (amongst other important developments) did not exist. Mission Robinson, the greatest literacy programme in human history, received barely a passing mention. This virulent censorship by the BBC, through omission, complements outright fabrications such as accusations that the Venezuelan government are a bunch of drug-dealers. None of this is new; look at the way Cuba has been misrepresented – and assaulted – over the years.

In this context, why should Eritrean outlets not cover the country’s various achievements…since the BBC will never do so.

Beyond the BBC’s mocking jibes, the dismissive nature of its coverage on Eritrea’s health and development successes was quite problematic since these successes aren’t simply run-of-the-mill exercises. In fact, these areas, within themselves, constitute internationally recognized human rights (that favorite trump card of certain segments of the international community).

Over the decades, innumerable and massive global development initiatives, with billions of dollars spent (and wasted), have attempted – and failed – to generate some of the health and development successes Eritrea has produced in a short timeframe and with a tiny fraction of the cost. Wouldn’t BBC’s audience have been better served by a deeper exploration of the particular processes and methods that helped to bring about these results? For the BBC, and the interests it represents, of course not, since doing so would call into question the dogma and precepts spread around the world with a missionary zeal by the global development, humanitarian, and aid industrial complex.

As expected, the BBC frequently repeated how Eritrea has failed to hold elections. But it should have completed its homework and noted that, in fact, the president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, was elected by the National Assembly. Furthermore, numerous elections, at local and regional levels have (and continue) to occur with regularity, allowing citizens to create opportunities, develop options, and make decisions that tangibly and substantively affect their lives. This is more than can be said of other countries in the region, where the election of members to a fishing club, let alone any civic or regional position is banned, lest it give the population any funny ideas.

Of course, if the BBC was truly concerned with the issue of democracy it would have clarified for its audience why and how, like the topic of media, the UK funds and is in bed with (while the BBC glibly chooses to overlook) numerous countries in the region and across MENA that are democracy in name only (e.g. the 99.8% balloters). Furthermore, surely the BBC’s audience, particularly within Britain, deserved an explanation of the existential military threat faced by Eritrea? Can the country’s situation not be explored in the context of how, during World War 2, when faced with the threat of Hitler’s German war machine at the Channel Ports, Britain (the world’s oldest democracy) suspended elections and democratic procedures?

Overall, the BBC’s failure stems from its inadequate attention to 2 key points. Why did the BBC fail to note and give proper consideration of the ongoing, illegal sanctions that continue to constrict Eritrea’s development efforts. Even though there still has not been a shred of evidence to support the claims made in passing sanctions (i.e. supporting terror), the UK (and others) continue to impose harmful sanctions. Why? If the BBC is interested in providing perspective, surely this point – a years-long, illegally-imposed set of sanctions upon a poor, low-income country – merits more than a surface-level mention?

Moreover, as alluded to earlier, if truly trying to provide perspective, why not more adequately describe the ongoing, illegal foreign military occupation of Eritrea (population 6 million) by Ethiopia (population 96 million)? Why not question the role of the UK, which continues to fund, arm, and diplomatically support the illegal occupation? These two factors are key to understanding the ongoing challenges in the country, and the region. By overlooking them, and instead focusing on their preconceived, myopic, humanitarian or interventionist agenda, the BBC reveals the underlying motives of their trip.

As succinctly and clearly stated by a British Officer when entering Asmara and being warmly greeted by an Eritrean (after the fall of the Fascist Italians), “I didn’t do it for you, n—-r!