Eritrea’s direct involvement in the ongoing Ethiopian civil war has been highly contentious for many observers. Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leaders reportedly have claimed they’re mainly fighting the Eritrean army in support of Ethiopian federal government soldiers. Eritrean leaders either have been silent or denied it. Although it took longer than it normally should have, the United States government finally concluded for themselves that Eritrea was involved.
For international media covering the civil war, the communication blackout and lack of access to the conflict areas has made reporting especially difficult. Hyperbolic claims by the warring parties that show up in press releases can rarely be confirmed.
As a result, the information vacuum gets filled with wild rumors. The fate of Eritrean refugees in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, estimated to be around 100,000, has been a primary concern of many Eritreans and international organizations concerned with refugees.
Rumors that were widely shared on social media have been creating panic. Some put it 6,000 while others 10,000, Eritrean refugees have been forcibly returned. Others were claiming wounded Eritrean soldiers are “being executed on the battlefield” to cover Eritrea’s involvement if caught by the TPLF forces.
None of these claims have been independently verified. It is both difficult to accept and hard to fully dismiss such reports.
Eritrean stakes in the Ethiopian civil war are high. Credible information has been scant, however. For the huge Eritrean diaspora, the population inside the country, and other interested international communities, what are the options for receiving accurate, substantive updates?
There are not many, which leaves the Eritrean state media.
The information blackout applies to both nationals inside Eritrea and the international community. State media, the only regime-approved media in Eritrea, lives in its own reality. It hardly covers any domestic issues that interest locals. For example, the country’s only newspaper was suspended for five months between April and September ostensibly due to the pandemic. When it resumed publication, it had shrunk from sixteen pages to just four. In other words, the only newspaper in the country became a single A2 sheet. Except for obituaries and sports news, hardly anyone believed what was being published in the newspaper anyway.
The only outlet to the outside world has been through the tweets of Eritrea’s minister of information, Mr. Yemane G. Meskel. Meskel’s prime role has been to persistently deny what is being reported about Eritrea outside the country’s borders. Regardless of their substance his tweets have at least provided a glimpse of the Eritrean government’s official line over a long period of time. His silence has mattered, too.
This time, the minister of information’s disregard for comment has been elevated to a higher level. When the international media, citing diplomatic sources or local contacts, recently reported that a third round of TPLF rockets had been fired into Eritrea on November 27, Mr. Meskel was tweeting about the “mandatory vaccination of livestock.” About two weeks before that, on November 14, when a missile missed his ministry building, the minister of information didn’t find it worthy of even a tweet.
When state officials fail to provide timely and credible updates, citizens inside the country don’t necessarily fill that gap with their own firsthand accounts. On top of a baked-in reluctance to speak on the phone arising from the popular belief that state security is tapping every call, many Eritreans have been desensitized to constant crisis. Indeed, crisis has become normalized.
After so many years of repression and crisis, Eritreans have either withdrawn into themselves or been reduced to docility.
Some independent, diaspora-based Eritrean media outlets do reach into the country. Due to a lack of access, however, the majority depend on hearsay. For the few who rigorously fact-check, their silence in the face of popular “facts” – established through common sense on social media – counts as the most reliable, albeit unsatisfactory, way of assessing the truth.
When potential credible sources are unavailable from inside, diasporic social media becomes the main source of information.
Multiple groups tweet or share updates about Eritrea, though most of the time their accuracy can’t be trusted. Whatever one group claims, you might hear the very opposite from another. Below are some broad categories of less than reliable sources that corrupt the social media space even while bits and pieces of information manage to trickle down to traditional media in the diaspora from both pro- and anti-regime sources.
Eritrea’s social media landscape, especially Twitter, is filled with anonymous trolls. They can be counted upon to rigorously deny and discredit anything and anyone who criticizes Eritrean leadership or state policies. As there is no hard information coming from the country, all that’s left for them is to counter or dispute others’ reports. Meanwhile, their original posts don’t go beyond a few cliched themes: reminding everyone that Eritrea is a safe and clean country; ceaselessly promoting the deteriorating art-decor and futuristic buildings; and boasting about the clean and unpolluted sea.
The regime’s social media warriors take seminars and receive tips from higher authorities, mostly on identifying possible targets to counter. Now that the Eritrean state is quiet about the civil war that’s roiling Ethiopia and spilling over into Eritrea, in addition to countering any claims of Eritrea’s possible involvement, the social media warriors are engaged in painting Ethiopia’s rebelling TPLF as an evil obstacle that must be eradicated in order for the region to prosper.
“We Exist because we Oppose”
Diametrically opposed to the gallant warriors is the opposition. Many of them left the country 30-40 years ago and have never been back. Over time, they have lost track of Eritrean society and only examine things through their old, now-unreliable lens. The great distance in time and space has disfigured their perception of the society. The lack of accurate reporting from the ground has transformed their once-apt perceptions almost to the level of conspiracy theory. Their unwavering commitment to call out repression is undermined by an absence of contemporary knowledge about Eritrea. This further weakens interactions between people and groups and disrupts the flow of information.
Whatever the regime in Eritrea does, most of this aforementioned group views it with suspicion and skepticism.
Eritrea is the rare country where any non-native can instantly claim “expertise” and not be questioned. They simply take a strong stand on either side and sit back as strong support flows from those who agree. Although serious scholars operate in this space, the landscape has no shortage of pseudo-experts who depend on a few contacts (as they can’t access the local languages). Yet, their views are amplified in the outside world since they can communicate in accessible language for the international community. This group is the worst about echoing misinformation that is then more likely to reach critical readers in the West.
The ones who sympathize with the Eritrean regime could mostly be these extremely frustrated with the West while others are deployed as country representatives of U.N. offices, or consular offices. They realize that the only way to keep their posts and potentially thrive in that difficult environment is to support the regime.
Other expats who are at odds with the Eritrean regime become self-appointed spokespeople for the Eritrean opposition. Typically, they’re academics or journalists on the peripheries. Eritrea’s notorious title as the “most closed and inaccessible country” helps their claims escape accountability or fact-checking. If confronted, they can easily blame the nature of the system and how difficult it is to determine the truth of any claim. The ceaseless attacks by regime supporters had put them on defense, though they can transfer to offensive mode when needed.
Activism as a Civic Duty
The second generation among the Eritrean diaspora are very active on social media. This group’s motivation is mainly to depart from and rebel against the pro-regime orthodoxies of their parents, whose loyalty dates way back to the struggle for independence. As many of these second-generation Eritreans lack access to the local languages and a wider context on what’s happening in their homeland, they mostly depend on a few sources available in English (which unfortunately are relatively rare).
Partly to relieve their guilt over enjoying access and privilege while their cousins are suffering in Eritrea, they try hard to have their voices heard. Full of passion and readiness, they’re hamstrung by an utter lack of information and access to the nuanced statements and explanations of the main actors. Consequently, they resort to regurgitating whatever comes to their attention in an accessible language.
Some of them apparently consider activism as a civic duty. When the real actors in the struggle in Ethiopia and Eritrea are far from the social media conversations, however, there’s nothing left to do but counter those diaspora activists who support the regime.
On whatever side of the struggle they fall, the second generation of Eritrean diaspora (who know the country from their parents and/or media) has created their own imaginary Eritrea, which is very far from reality. As they are firmly set on their side, most do not accept – much less listen to – sound arguments from the other side. Their genuine desire to “help” or “defend the motherland” results in a very skewed image of the country.
The Marginal Group
A few people do have nuanced understandings and insights about the situation in Eritrea. Unfortunately, however, they can’t be heard/read in the midst of such a polarized environment. As they risk being cyber-lynched, their perspectives hardly make it into the discussion.
The most arduous job then becomes finding a balanced and rational insight into what’s happening in Eritrea and Ethiopia the midst of all the noise. Unfortunately, no casual observer has any chance of successfully navigating through these stormy seas, to make informed decisions based on popular social media posts and by extension the traditional media.
The Ethiopian government has enforced an information blackout in the Tigray Region since the beginning of the war on November 4. The extreme, polarized social media posts on the Eritrean side are adding another level of confusion in an already beleaguered environment. Unfortunately, for lack of better access what is being reported on social media eventually morphs into “truth,” and influences policy makers. That also has been the sad, and signature, reality in which Eritrea has now existed in for years.
Abraham T. Zere is US-based Eritrean exiled writer and journalist whose work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Al Jazeera English, Mail & Guardian, Index on Censorship magazine, among others. He tweets @abraham_zere.