New media cracks Eritrea’s iron curtain

Isolated in exile, young Eritreans have developed new forms of resistance.

Young Eritreans, who have fled abroad to escape their government’s stifling repression and years of compulsory military service, have turned to new media to attack the regime. Over the last year they have used chat-rooms, phone messaging and flash-mobs to get their message across.

In the last decade, tens of thousands of Eritreans slipped across their country’s heavily guarded borders. After surviving shipwreck in the Mediterranean or banditry, torture and extortion in the Sinai, they are building new lives in Europe, the US and Israel. Many are deeply angry that they have had to flee from their homeland, and looking for a means of attacking President Isaias Afwerki grip on power. But Eritrea is – after North Korea – probably the most inaccessible of regimes.  It accepts almost no foreign aid, has expelled most United Nations agencies and forbids foreign ambassadors from travelling outside the capital, Asmara.

Since the early 1990s, all independent media have been silenced, critics jailed and the university closed. Isolated in exile, young Eritreans have developed new forms of resistance through a campaign group, Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change.

They began with phone numbers smuggled out of the country. Eritrean towns and villages were targeted for phone calls at random. "We wanted to show Eritreans that they were not isolated," explained Selam Kidane, one of the London organisers. "At first people were very frightened, but gradually that has faded," Selam told me. "Now, when I get through I get passed from person to person."

Next the group turned to robocalls to spread their message.  Automated messages recorded by a priest for use on 29 November, the feast of Saint Mary.  Five thousand calls were made, urging people to go to St Mary’s church in Asmara, to commemorate the disappearance in 2005 of the Patriach of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Patriach Abune Antonios. The organisers claim that around 5,000 of the 6,800 calls got through. Some were followed up by one to one conversations.

Since then there have been a series of concerted campaigns, focussing on smaller towns. The organising group, called Arbi Harnet or ‘Freedom Friday’, asks Eritreans to remain off the streets, as a mark of solidarity. "The main objective is to penetrate the government’s iron curtain, to reach our people and encourage them to take communal action and link the resistance," says Ahmed Abdelrahim from Melbourne, a singer and song writer who co-founded Arbi Harnet.

Other calls have been used to mark particular events. This month, the ninth anniversary of the detention of Astern Yohannes, a guerrilla fighter was marked with 10,000 calls. She is also the wife of one of Eritrea’s best known imprisoned politician and first minister of defence, Petros Solomon. A video has been produced, explaining how she returned home in December 2003, after studying for three years at University of Phoenix in Arizona, to be with her children. Posters have been sent over the internet, describing the plight of young Eritreans who become held to ransom in the Sinai by people smugglers. Some have been secretly put up in Asmara and covertly filmed on mobile phones.

But perhaps the most powerful weapon has been through chat-rooms like Paltalk. This has enabled young exiles, the majority of whom have few foreign languages and no experience of the outside world, to escape their isolation. Together they have become what they call "the team that never sleeps." Living across the globe, with members in Australia, Europe and California, they plan and co-ordinate their operations. Flash mobs from Switzerland to Scotland have broken up meetings organised by government supporters, and the Eritrean ambassadors now have few opportunities to openly push the official line.

Unlike the first generation of exiled Eritreans, who concentrated on formal organisational structures, the youth are keen to act rather than plot and plan. With no formal structure and no borders, these young men and women are challenging a regime that has been described by Human Rights Watch as one of the most repressive in the world.

Martin Plaut is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies

An Eritrean demonstrator waves his national flag whist taking part in a demonstration on Whitehall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty Images
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Caroline Lucas: The Prime Minister's narrow focus risks our security

Military force may sometimes be necessary. But resorting to bombs and bullets comes at a high price to those caught up in conflicts abroad and, all too often, to the future security of people across the world.

The protection of national security is the first duty of any government. In the dangerous world in which we live -where threats range from terrorist attacks, to public health emergencies and extreme weather events – we all want to feel safe in the knowledge that the government is acting in our best interests.

David Cameron’s speech yesterday marked a change in tone in this government’s defence policies. The MOD is emerging from the imposition of austerity long before other departments as ministers plan to spend £178bn on buying and maintaining military hardware over the next decade.

There is no easy solution to the threats facing Britain, or the conflicts raging across the world, but the tone of Cameron’s announcement – and his commitment to hiking up spending on defence hardware- suggests that his government is focussing far more on the military solutions to these serious challenges, rather than preventing them occurring in the first place.

Perhaps Cameron could have started his review by examining how Britain’s arms trade plays a role in conflict across the world. British military industries annually produce over $45 billion (about £30 billion) worth of arms. We sell weapons and other restricted technologies to repressive regimes across the world, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Kazakhstan and China. Furthermore Britain has sent 200 personnel in Loan Service teams in seven countries: Brunei, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – helping to train and educate the armed forces of those countries.  Any true review of our security should certainly have looked closely at the effects of our arms industry- and the assistance we’re giving to powers in some of the most unstable regions on earth.

At the heart of the defence review is a commitment to what Cameron calls Britain’s “ultimate insurance policy as a nation’ – the so-called “independent nuclear deterrent”. The fact remains that our nuclear arsenal is neither “independent” – it relies on technology and leased missiles from the USA, nor is it a deterrent. As a group of senior military officers, including General Lord Ramsbotham and the former head of the armed forces Field Marshal Lord Bramall wrote in a letter to the Times “Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism.”

The cold truth is that France’s nuclear weapons didn’t protect Parisians against Isis terrorists, and our own nuclear weapons cannot be claimed to make us safer than Germany, Spain or Italy. The unending commitment to these weapons, despite the spiralling costs involved and the flimsy evidence in their favour, seems to be closer linked to international grandstanding than it does our national security. Likewise the Government’s further investment in drones, should be looked at closely, with former defence chiefs in the USA having spoken against these deadly pilotless aircraft and describing their use as a “failed strategy” which has further radicalised populations in the Middle East. A serious review of our defence strategy should have looked at the possibility of alternatives to nuclear proliferation and closely investigated the effectiveness of drones.

Similarly the conclusions of the review seem lacking when it came to considering diplomacy as a solution to international conflict. The Foreign Office, a tiny department in terms of cost, is squeezed between Defence and the (thankfully protected) Department for International Development. The FCO has already seen its budget squeezed since 2010, and is set for more cuts in tomorrow’s spending review. Officials in the department are warning that further cuts could imperil the UK’s diplomatic capacity. It seems somewhat perverse that that Government is ramping up spending on our military – while cutting back on the department which aims to protect national security by stopping disputes descending into war. 

In the government’s SDSR document they categories overseas and domestic threats into three tiers. It’s striking that alongside “terrorism” and “international military conflict” in Tier One is the increasing risk of “major natural hazards”, with severe flooding given as an example. To counteract this threat the government has pledged to increase climate finance to developing countries by at least 50 per cent, rising to £5.8 billion over five years. The recognition of the need for that investment is positive but– like the continual stream of ministerial warm words on climate change – their bold statements are being undermined by their action at home.

This government has cut support for solar and wind, pushed ahead with fracking and pledged to spend vast sums on an outdated and outrageously expensive nuclear power station owned in part by the Chinese state. A real grasp of national security must mean taking the action needed on the looming threat of energy insecurity and climate change, as well as the menace of terrorism on our streets.

Military force may sometimes be necessary. But resorting to bombs and bullets comes at a high price to those caught up in conflicts abroad and, all too often, to the future security of people across the world. It’s crucial we do not allow the barbarous acts carried out on the streets of Paris, in the skies above Egypt, the beaches of Tunisia or the hotels of Mali to cloud our judgement about what makes us safer and more secure in the long term.  And we must ensure that any discussion of defence priorities is broadened to pay far more attention to the causes of war, conflict and insecurity. Security must always be our first priority, but using military action to achieve that safety must, ultimately, always be a last resort.  

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.