“Mass protest. Mass rally. Indiscriminate gunshots. Mass casualties and death”. These are some of the sensationalist words and phrases used by most media outlets to create buzz and portray events as simply black and white. They are often also used without nuance or context.
Earlier this week, Eritrea made the headlines after a group of teenagers walked down the streets of Asmara to voice their discontent against normative administrative measures – in practice all over the country since 1995 – that the Ministry of Education instructed the strident school principals to observe. Shouting “Allahu Akbar”, the boys, mostly aged around 14- 15, were walking from their neighborhood, Akria, towards the Ministry of Education.
Many Eritreans on the sidewalks, in shops and restaurants, and otherwise within the city center looked on in confusion, particularly with the chants of “God is Great” in Arabic. Generally, such loud, public proclamations are rare in a society long known for its sense of collective tolerance and respect. After some members of the group threw stones at several policemen, authorities dispersed the crowd and fired warning shots into the air. In total, the entire incident lasted several minutes, with no casualties or injuries.
However, almost instantly, reports of the incident were twisted, mashed, mixed and remade by several foreign media outlets to provide an account that was quite far from the reality. Lately, it seems that anything negative is a treasure these entities. Al Jazeera was in the lead; Associate Press, reporting from Ethiopia, the BBC, and others followed not too long after. A hasty statement by the US Embassy in Eritrea, warning its citizens from going to the city centre, was also somewhat ironic considering that people in the streets of Asmara are far safer than those in the US, who must regularly confront police brutality and killings, stop and frisk campaigns, regular mass shootings, and general violence.
Ironically, as more time passed by, the more twisted the reports became. By Wednesday, the story was completely distorted. The Washington Post and – with an extensive history of reports on Eritrea that later ended up being debunked – dutifully recycled a spurious story filed by the Associated Press stating that 100 were injured and 28 killed, despite the fact that there were no casualties and no one was injured. It was conveniently overlooked that the source for this fabricated story was the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO), an internationally recognized terrorist group based in Ethiopia, while the AP stringer/ journalist was a TPLF cadre with a hostile agenda against Eritrea.
Expectedly, news outlets jumped on the new “fact” of multiple deaths and the story quickly began trending on Twitter. Repeated efforts at clarifying and providing an accurate account of the event were made by Eritreans, located both ion the ground in Asmara and the Diaspora, but they were largely ignored. Instead, self-titled experts on Eritrea and notorious quislings and their foreign handlers fueled the fire, and spread inaccurate, false accounts. Others would continue the lies by shifting the source of the youths’ discontent, and also claiming that the Internet, telephone lines, and power in the capital were cut – despite things proceeding as normal in the city. Soon afterwards, almost as expected, the AJStream started sending private messages to many on Twitter, inviting them on their show. Obvious, right?
It is hard to understand how, instead of pursuing the truth or trying to provide an objective, balanced account, mainstream media rejected information or views of people tweeting from on the ground in Asmara, dismissing them as “regime sympathizers.” What mainstream media failed to understand, however, is that the great majority of Eritreans – regardless of gender, class, or faith – were disappointed and angry towards the youngsters. Eritrea is not a country divided along religious or ethnic lines.
Shortly after the brief, small incident things returned back to normal. Some men – ordinary civilians – did stay out during the night, but only to ensure that there would be no more incidents. Notably, no militia or army personnel were called in to stand guard; in Eritrea, the people themselves have a sense of ownership and civil responsibility, and the prevalent attitude was that no such incidents should happen again. Women even brought them food and drinks, and it was quite telling that both Muslims and Christians were standing together in solidarity and community, side by side. However, on the other side of the world, the media and the Internet were abuzz with fake news and false accounts.
It should be noted that, by law, Eritrea follows a secular system where religious schools and national curriculum of education are separate. The administrative measures that the Ministry of Education implemented were not new but remedial action for what had gone astray in this particular school. It was not also unique in that similar remedial action was taken in the recent past on both the Cathedrale (Catholic) and St. Mary’s (Orthodox) schools.
According to Eritrea’s National Charter of 1994, “the diverse cultures of Eritrea are indeed a source of power and unity. The national educational system should be secular, separate from religion, yet respectful of the equality of religions” (Macro Policy/EPLF Charter). This vision was also cultivated and practiced during the long, bitter armed struggle where people from all layers of Eritrean society – regardless of religious background – came together to win the country’s independence.
In today’s Eritrea, implementing a secular system has helped ensure peace and tolerance in a region known more for its ethno-religious volatility, violence, and tensions. What mainstream media and individuals looking for storm and chaos in a general sea of calm totally fail to understand is that Eritreans have a long history of struggle. Eritreans paid a heavy price for independence and sovereignty, and the people condemn any signs of conflicts, violence, discrimination, or division. Thus, despite the continuous efforts to disturb this harmony, the country remains united and will continue to work toward a society based on peace, love, tolerance, and mutual respect.