Thirty nine years after Dmtsi Hafash (the voice of the masses) first broadcast was aired in January 1979 in a place called Fah, the voice of the masses of Eritrea is still the most prevalent, accessible, and flexible mass media available in Eritrea.
During the strategic withdrawal, when liberation fighters left the gates of Asmara and withdrew to Sahel, the voice of the masses of Eritrea aired a voice of perseverance and existence of the freedom fighters that was not heard before. During the struggle for independence Dmtsi Hafash effectively countered and exposed the lies and propaganda of the Ethiopian regime. Through its accurate and timely information it gained credibility and popularity, including behind enemy lines. Dmtsi Hafash was a conduit of information between the freedom fighters – the tegadelti – and the people.
The history of journalism in Eritrea dates back to the Italian colonialism. The publication of newspapers started during the Italian colonial period to provide information about Italy, to glorify the greatness of Italy, and to present the economic viability of Eritrea. The subsequent British Administration granted freedom of press which encouraged the establishment of additional newspapers. In the 1940s, the press changed dramatically to become revolutionary and reconciliatory. The corrective press that helped to rest the democratic rights of Eritrea was finally closed at the hands of Ethiopian colonizers in the first few years of federation. In the mid-1950s the printed mass media transformed and responded by organizing themselves in very subtle forms, including through music and oral means. The struggle by the mass media against the Ethiopian violations of federation was not limited to the domestic front. By the initiative of patriot Weldeab Weldemariam, a radio broadcast from Cairo campaigned for mass mobilization. In the course of this struggle, the mass media effectively mobilized civil society to protest against Ethiopia that led to profound domestic political and economic instability.
Before the introduction of modern mass media, the Eritrean society used a traditional mode of dissemination of information. With variations in efficiency and speed, each community devised a system of communication. Oral traditions, such as mase and awlo, were at times the sigh of the oppressed people and the masses could get information about global and local political developments. The printed mass media, the radio broadcasts from Cairo, and the oral traditions played a great role in informing and inculcating the notion of independence and self-determination among Eritreans. Far from simple dissemination of information, they contributed a lot to bring about national unity and the feeling of nationalism. Thus, Dmtsi Hafash and various other magazines produced during the liberation struggle were built on the foundation of the 1940s and 1950s nationalist journalistic activities.
National development is a comprehensive and qualitative transformation that involves changes in the economic condition, social situation, and political disposition. In Eritrea, the focus of national development is the people. Similarly, the mass media of Eritrea is not solely a commercial enterprise; rather, it’s a service aimed at guiding, informing and entertaining the people. The overall object of national development is human development which includes, amongst other things, enlarging people’s choices for greater access to knowledge and information, better nutrition, education and health services, greater security and stability. Media has played a central role in winning our liberation and preserving our independence. Now, it has made a successful contribution to national development by performing many roles.
Media’s function to act as a guardian of public interest and agenda setting are among the most important roles of the media. Media can often determine what to think and worry about. Media is a watchdog that speaks for the people and represents the interests of the people. Media’s role in national development can be analyzed from political, economic and social perspectives. In the political sphere, media’s role in raising political consciousness and public relations is positive. In the economic sphere, media can play their role in advertisements and tourism. In the social sphere, media has an important role in combating corruption, ignorance, criminal violence, and health problems. For example, corruption distorts economic and social development. The media can act as a force against corruption by exposing corruption. Television programs, such as “keysa’Erere”, the magazine “hzbn polisn”, the radio programe “dmtsi polis Eritrea”, and the law and society column in gazette, educate the society about corruption and provide strong incentives for changing behavior.
In many conflicts, we have seen media that works to inflame and exacerbate the conditions by over simplification, exaggeration and outright sensationalism, suppression or outright distortion of facts, bias cultural insensitivity. Such actions not only make the media lose credibility, they also serve as an avenue for increasing conflicts. The media in Eritrea, Dmtsi Hafash, Radio Numa, Radio Zara, newspapers, TV programs and websites, have had encouraging track record in terms of avoiding such harmful practices. In fact, not only do they often present quality work, they also play a positive role in enhancing the national unity of the Eritrean society.
The western media are often responsible for disseminating false information about Eritrea. The distorted information about Eritrea generally fails to inform about the context or background to any event. They simply rush to tell their perspective, without presenting the causes or complexity of the story. Western media, along with other regional media outlets, have become the convenient vehicles for blackmail and instruments of hidden agenda. Ruby Sandhu, an international human rights lawyer, has stated that “To date the only narrative that is present in the Western press about Eritrea is that of the NGOs, the politicized actions of the HRC and the activists all of whom have never visited Eritrea.” BBC journalist Mary Harper, who actually visited Eritrea, has also said “Eritrea has a serious image problem, but if you work in the best of your abilities, beyond your humble and modest tradition of not bragging on your own, you will definitely be able to portray [a more accurate account].” Our media outlets should therefore increase their efforts to tell the complete story of Eritrea.
Eritrea’s independent, responsible and fair media is a revolutionary tool of liberation from colonialism and underdevelopment, and it helps reinforce the national unity of Eritrea. Eritrea’s mass media is expected to be a development centered media that presses for change. It is geared towards mobilizing the people for national development. Well-reported news about development is important in stimulating further development. Journalists are also expected to recognize the importance of the media to development and to be committed to using their profession to impart knowledge and information that will contribute to the development of the country. They must bring information about the array of development projects conducted in every corner of the country. The journalist is not only to be an adversary, but also communicate information, education, instruction, and inspiration. They must also provide context, background, and understanding about cause and effect.
Eritrea’s mass media is often socially and morally responsible and the media have a moral obligation to society to provide information for citizens to make informed decisions. Our media is an alternative to the profit making corporate media. It emphasizes the empowerment of people with their active participation not as passive listeners. During the struggle for independence, Dmtsi Hafash and other journalistic activities were instrumental in exposing the tyranny and exploitation of Ethiopian colonial rule. Dmtsi Hafash had a force multiplying effect that added to the combat effectiveness of military operations. Media coverage not only develops public awareness and the support of the military in operations, they also have the benefit of enhancing the morale of troops and the people. Dmtsi Hafash was an offensive weapon against our enemies.
The mass media continued to play a key and leading role in the struggle for the preservation of independence and national reconstruction. After independence, our media outlets are not only performing the traditional role of supplying the people with information about the daily events, but also assumed a responsive role of shouldering the burden of trust of our martyrs by fighting an overzealous Weyane invasion. During and after the Weyane invasion our mass media sustained an effective struggle against false information about Eritrea. Through extensive anti-distorted information articles, editorials, publications and broadcast they struggled to preserve the true image of Eritrea. The content of the international news agencies strongly event oriented and superficial, personifying and dramatizing events of the day. Western media agencies produce and distribute messages to control the poor. The cultural imperialism and communication imperialism sustained the superiority of the powerful countries and the dependency of developing countries. According to Farrar (1997), “All the world can learn about world events is what New York, London, or Paris chooses to tell them”. Currently, a few powerful countries are policing the world through media.
The global development initiatives are shaped in a way that largely benefits the developed nations, maintaining the peripheral countries in a continuous position of dependence by other means. When we look at the aid given by developed nations from financial, technological and military aid to loans and technical assistance, it is far from genuine support. The extent to which the mass media have assisted in reinforcing the western cultural, economic and military supremacy throughout the world is also enormous.
Our mass media should challenge the notion of domination and provide an alternative narrative of truth and must be a national platform that represents the cultural diversity of Eritrea. Eritrean media outlets distribute message of truth, peace and development to national and international audiences. They all present history and look for posterity, contribute to national unity and social harmony, serve as a voice for the voiceless, and prepare the people for their role in national development. The radio, newspapers, magazines and television must continue their focus on practices that are geared towards development, hard work, dignity, ethical governance and discipline, environmental and cultural protection, and general improvement.