Eritrea: An Exiled Nation Suspended in Liminal Space through Social Media
December 30, 2016
Over the last decade and half, the name Eritrea has become synonymous with migration. In June 2015, the UN estimated that around 5,000 Eritreans—out of a total population of about 5 million—were fleeing each month. Since independence in 1993, Eritrea has been ruled by one party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), and one man: President Isaias Afwerki. While the government has closed all means of communications to cement its grip on power, the Eritrean diaspora community is countering it through decentralized social media to mobilize resources, coordinate events, and stay connected.
There is no war going on in Eritrea, yet it is one of the highest sources of refugees in Europe after Syria and Afghanistan. The chief reasons for this mass exodus are widespread human rights violations, including national service for indefinite periods and absolute disregard for rule of law. In its 2015/2016 annual report, Amnesty International states that "Mandatory National Service continued to be extended indefinitely in a system that amounts to forced labor. A significant proportion of the population was in open-ended conscription, in some cases for up to 20 years." The report also adds: "Thousands of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, including former politicians, journalists and practitioners of unauthorized religions, continued to be detained without charge or trial, and lacked access to a lawyer or family members. Many had been detained for well over a decade." The Eritrean government has consistently denied to clarify the fates of prisoners of conscience.
In addition to widely documented human rights abuses, the Eritrean media-scape is severely hampered. The short-lived private newspapers were banned in September 2001, amid a political and media crackdown. The lack of independent media, coupled with ubiquitous censorship, has earned Eritrea the title of "most censored country in the world," followed by North Korea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. This absence of independent media is combined with an extremely centralized, slow, dial-up internet connection that covers only about 1 percent of the total population. Starting from October 2016, the state security also introduced another mechanism of installing fear by requesting internet cafes to register detailed personal identifications of users. As most Eritreans have no internet service at home and must go to the crowded internet cafes, the new instruction further threatens the few users who have been accessing the slow connection against all odds, including the frequent power cuts.
The dearth of established media inside the country is reflected in the diaspora. There are various underequipped and underfunded online platforms, mainly in the fragile opposition camp, but they also lack credible sources from inside the country and naturally depend on rumors coming out from the regime. It is against this backdrop that social media is emerging out of necessity.
Arab Revolution as Springboard
The popular Arab revolutions of 2010-11 have shifted the landscape of the Eritrean opposition, which used to be dominated by the older generation, inspiring many Eritrean exiled youths to use social media as a new way of fighting the autocratic regime back home. Following Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, Eritrean activists living in the United States created a Facebook group named Eritrean Youth Solidarity of Change (EYSC). According to Daniel G. Mikael, EYSC's co-founder and the first chairman, the group mainly targets youth and encourages them to speak out. Established in February 2011, today the group has more than 27,000 members and has served as a springboard for many decentralized, grassroots pro-democracy forces to organize themselves. According to Mikael, groups have formed in many countries to pressure Eritrea to free all political prisoners unconditionally and to end the indefinite national service.
Unlike the cyber-inspired revolution of the Middle East, however, Eritreans' popular demands have failed to topple the dictatorship. Weighing the pros and cons of such cyber-activism, Mikael states, "Cyber based 'revolution' can only help inspire the change agents to act," because, he adds, "Dictatorship thrives only when it can control what the people are allowed to know, discuss and share."
The EYSC Facebook group has inspired many Eritreans to share their stories and stay updated. It also became the model for such similar initiatives that were later adopted by different groups. However, since literacy levels are low, even though the written discussions often switch between English and Tigrinya (the lingua-franca of Eritrea), the texts are of limited use to many Eritreans. So EYSC opted to use Paltalk chat room as a means of reaching a wider audience. Paltalk enables users to combine video, audio and text. Given the oral nature of Eritrean society, it was quickly adopted and soon became the most popular medium.
Initially started with EYSC in June 2011, but later becoming an independent platform, Eritrean Smerrr for Change Room1 is one of the most popular Paltalk chat rooms among the Eritrean diaspora. With 18 administrators in different time zones from the United States to Europe and Australia, Smerrr currently hosts about two programs per week, according to Rezene Dermas, one of the admins. Dermas says the chat room hosts up to 500 guests at a time; discussions are recorded and then uploaded on their official sites.
One of the biggest achievements of the Paltalk chat rooms was to inspire and embolden many Eritreans to speak out against the regime. The fact that Paltalk does not require people's real identity, but just an account name, encourages many to speak out without fear of retribution. Among the most widely followed and shared discussions were the testimonies of a former prison guard in the country's infamous prison center and former members of the secret service who absconded. In addition to those who follow the live discussions or access it from the website, these had an average of about 40,000 hits each when shared on YouTube.
The Power of the Anonymous Whistleblower
One of the mostly discussed social media pages among Eritreans is "Sacttism: Classified Documents of Dwindling PFDJ." Founded in February 2016, this Facebook page is run by an anonymous whistleblower who goes by the name "Samuel." The page has leaked crucial information such as the fates of political leaders and journalists who have been kept incommunicado in secret prisons. Other leaked files include the levels of corruption committed by people in power, extra-judicial killings by the state security, and secret deals the Eritrean government has been doing with terrorist groups.
The page provides extensive analysis, substantiated with documents and sometimes video footage, and has been consistently targeted by Eritrean state security and its surrogates in the diaspora. As Samuel reveals, it was blocked four times, following petitions to Facebook claiming that it was inciting hatred.
According to Samuel, the page registers between 250,000-350,000 weekly hits; the maximum it has reached so far was 700,000 in one week. As the page mainly publishes in Tigrinya, the primary readers are Tigrinya speakers.
The page is shaking up the status quo by destroying the extreme secrecy of the ruling PFDJ. Eritrean literary scholar, Ghirmai Negash describes Sacttism, "as a new genre in Eritrean writing, the importance of which lies in its subversive power in the context of a nation under tyranny."
Posts published in Sacttism have been widely shared in different social media and read on radio stations that broadcast to Eritrea.
Among the major achievements of the Eritrean opposition camp is the creation of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea that was established to examine the abuses committed by the Eritrean government. In its second report of 2016, the committee concluded that "crimes against humanity have been committed in a widespread and systematic manner over the last 25 years." Daniel Mekonnen, the Eritrean human-rights lawyer who was a member of a task force that collected testimonies from victims and their relatives, argues that social media was crucial in creating awareness. Mekonnen explains: "They [social media] have a played a great role, for example, in exposing the heinous crimes of the Eritrean regime; raising awareness in a number of human rights related issues, including mobilizing people for concrete actions such as the two Geneva Mass Rallies of 2015 and 2016." Mekonnen was co-organizer of these two enormous demonstrations. More than 5,000 and 12,000 Eritreans from different corners of the world came to Geneva in 2015 and 2016 respectively to show their support for the report of the Commission of Inquiry and to condemn the systematic abuses of the Eritrean government. Mekonnen adds, "I have seen first-hand how the majority of people (in their thousands) were effectively mobilized to come for these demonstrations, especially in that of the 2015, through social media. The role of Facebook and Paltalk in particular was very effective."
The advent of Facebook Live Video feature has been a game changer in the political landscape of the Eritrean diaspora. The new technology has mainly empowered young people and given them a voice to appeal to their contemporaries. Over the last year, many young Eritreans have emerged as critical and independent voices with their consistent "wake-up" calls. Such independent initiatives by ordinary citizens are inspiring many to follow in their footsteps and stand up against injustice.
Social media, particularly the Live Facebook feature, has been used very effectively by Eritrean cyber-activists. Temesghen Debessai, founder and former director of the English Service at the national TV, ERI-TV and currently working as a freelance journalist with Thomson Reuters Foundation, covered the 2016 Geneva mass rally live on Facebook. He interviewed guests in English, Tigrinya, and Arabic and produced a total of 14 videos, including live coverage of the actual peace rally. In total, these videos have been shared 7,000 times on Facebook and reached over one million views.
One method the Eritrean state uses to control the exile community is to collect a diaspora income tax of 2 percent. On the one hand, this tax serves as a pledge of allegiance by those who support the regime; but on the other, it has galvanized the opposition to end the illegal extortion of taxes in foreign territories. Over the last few years, thanks to continued pressure and online petitions organized through the social media and leading activists, most countries have outlawed collecting this 2 percent income tax in their territories.
Mekonnen attributes the "seismic shift in the balance of power between pro-regime and pro-democracy groups" to the proliferation of information-sharing and calls made through the social media.
Against all odds, the Eritrea diaspora cyber-activists are gaining momentum and exerting more pressure on the regime. For example, in 2010, in an annex to an executive order on Somalia, President Obama included Yemane Ghebreab, the political head of the PFDJ and presidential advisor, on a list of individuals described as contributing to an "unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States." Yet Ghebreab continued to conduct public seminars in the United States until Eritrean activists finally succeeded, after years of lobbying, in pressuring the State Department to ban him from attending a conference at the Atlantic Council in October 2016.
Creating a Social Space and Horizontal Solidarity across Borders
In addition to groups that primarily serve as platforms for political debates, there are also other important social media groups for the thousands of young migrants. Most Eritreans take the dangerous Mediterranean Sea route to get to Europe. They use social media, particularly Facebook, Whatsapp, and Viber, to navigate the routes, exchange information, and support each other. As the journey entails terrible risks, starting with leaving the country and then dealing with multiple smugglers and human traffickers along the way, shared information is crucial and Eritrean social media platforms frequently contain posts about safe routes from the Sudan to Libya and from Libya to Europe. If certain routes are particularly risky, those who have survived and are safely in Europe will quickly share their experiences and advise others to avoid them. Posting photos, names, and contact details of malicious smugglers, accompanied with detailed descriptions of their misdoings is also very common, so that others can stay away from them. Although the possibilities of false allegations are inevitable, this kind of information-sharing is literally life-saving.
Hundreds of Eritreans have been dying each year along the Mediterranean and Sahara routes and social media platforms are often used to make public appeals to save endangered or trapped groups or to get support for families of the deceased. Since Eritrea is a highly communal and interdependent society, responses to such appeals have been very encouraging and crowd-funding targets are quickly not only met, but surpassed.
After reaching their destinations, mainly in Europe, many Eritreans also share information about the policies of the host countries on social media. Either in closed groups or publicly, it is very common to read messages of communal support and tips on how incoming brothers and sisters can use available resources or reach the relatively better countries in Europe. Information may include the conditions of political asylum each country accepts or the offers/challenges available in the most common destinations.
For most Eritreans who have to deal with the inevitable cultural shocks and language challenges in their host countries, social media is used as a way of extending horizontal imagined communities. For example, Paltalk has been one of the most popular social media platforms among exiled youth to discuss many issues freely. Apart from the political Paltalk chat rooms, such as Smerrr, Hidri Jeganuna, and Teshamo, there are also other apolitical chat rooms that deal with many social issues. Usually, the admins of the chat rooms live in different time zones and countries that enable widely scattered Eritreans to stay in touch. Without many inhibitions or prescribed norms, the chat rooms allow many like-minded Eritreans to discuss different social issues they are facing in their host countries.
Exiled Eritreans are also using YouTube such as LYE, Halenga, ELLA, Afroview, and Amen to connect with each other. It is very common for Eritrean songs to reach more than one million views in a few months. Given the limited audience for Eritrean music and the lack of YouTube inside Eritrea because of the slow internet connection, it can safely be concluded that the viewers are Eritreans in exile.
Response from the State
Social media platforms abroad are shaking the status quo of the Eritrean regime, whose survival greatly depends on secrecy and control. Hence, the state security is responding with all means at its disposal. Despite wider information sharing among the Eritrean diaspora through social media, information reaching nationals living in the country has been filtered through tight channels. The state security—by instilling fear and collective surveillances—has disconnected Eritreans living in the country from taking part in their own affairs.
Debessai explains the challenges of Eritrean cyber-inspired activism in comparison to the Middle East. "Not to state the obvious, we Eritreans are not in a position to hold any sort of demonstrations whatsoever inside Eritrea because of the cold-blooded and brutal nature of the regime." Yet, he is optimistic: "But I believe we are winning the war on the propaganda front, thanks to social media. More people are getting their voices heard and that in turn is encouraging many more to come out and tell their stories. Many undecided (silent majority) fellow Eritreans have also been getting clarity of mind as these stories continue to rise to the surface. Information dissemination has been our greatest Achille's heel. Social media is now helping us address our shortcoming in that regard."
The regime surrogates living in the West have also been working hard to counter social media. For example, they have been trolling prominent activists in an attempt to silence them and change the narrative. Character assassination of the leading activists, either on their social media platforms or websites, has also been another silencing mechanism. Most prominent activists have been targeted by the regime loyalists, which Debessai calls "a badge of honor." Just as activists have been doing with the Facebook page Sacttism, regime loyalists are also quick to mobilize support and garner petitions.
Eritrean diaspora social media have succeeded in shaking the most closed regime and the long reign of secrecy and fear. However, they have the obvious limitation of failing to overthrow this dictatorial regime. Although social media's subtle roles in pushing the youth to flee in droves should not be underestimated, yet they are also creating a liminal space—a threshold, or transitional stage between the familiar and the as yet unknown—making Eritrea an exiled nation suspended through social media.