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Eritrea: Views and Musings

1. On principles and ethics

If you have not done so already, I highly recommend that you set aside a little bit of time to read Ruby Sandhu’s recent article, “Unprincipled Journalism and Activism on Eritrea.” In her brief, yet perceptive, article, Sandhu, an international human rights lawyer, strongly critiques the mainstream coverage of and general advocacy practices toward Eritrea, and calls for more honest, principled, ethical approaches. Here, I extend the important conversation begun by Sandhu, mainly to offer a few brief comments and slightly elaborate upon some of the key points she raised.

First, the article is particularly timely and relevant. The spate of peace and cooperation agreements across the Horn of Africa region in recent months has understandably led to much optimism and great hope. Additionally, the rapidly unfolding events have generated considerable comment, discussion, and analysis, with substantial focus on Eritrea. Unfortunately, however, much of the coverage about the country, following the long established pattern, has been highly inaccurate or just simply wrong. In this context, Sandhu’s article serves as an apt reminder for readers to remain vigilant, critical, and skeptical.

As alluded to within the article, mainstream coverage of Eritrea is often fraught with inaccuracies, oversimplification, and severe lack of understanding, while also reinforcing the harmful, outdated paternalistic stereotypes of Africans as weak, helpless, and waiting or needing to be rescued by noble foreign saviors.

The paradox, however, is that despite the poor state of coverage regarding Eritrea, there has often been a complete lack of accountability or any semblance of transparency. For instance, consider how often media outlets or authors provide timely responses to questions or concerns, clear corrections or retractions, or prominent acknowledgments that a mistake was made and has been addressed?

Rather, what has more often been the case is that when authors or news organizations have been asked to clarify important points, facts, or aspects of their coverage, they have simply responded by totally ignoring commentators and excluding or discrediting alternative perspectives. Even when other local or dissenting voices are included within the discourse, thus seeming to provide “objectivity” and “balance”, they are often dismissively regarded as inherently biased, merely opinions, or only perspectives, while mainstream voices are elevated to the status of expertise and objective fact.

As well, in light of Sandhu’s reasonable concerns regarding the problematic sourcing for many stories, one may sensibly ask, after years and years of poor coverage about Eritrea, where numerous stories have been littered with errors, both big and small, why have no genuinely effective mechanisms been established to anticipate problem areas, reduce mistakes, and correct them as quickly and transparently as possible? Furthermore, one wonders, if particular sources have been regularly relied upon to help develop stories, yet stories consistently are revealed as being wrong or highly inaccurate, why do journalists and outlets staunchly persist in working so closely with these sources?

Last, reading Sandhu’s article, which indicts the general journalistic practices and approaches toward Eritrea in the West, particularly Britain, I could not help but note how it shared many significant elements with parts of the recent speech at the Labour Party’s annual conference in Liverpool, England by Jeremy Corbyn, a British politician. Specifically, Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, used a part of his speech to strongly criticize the mainstream British media, stating that, “a free press has far too often meant the freedom to spread lies and half-truths, and to smear the powerless, not take on the powerful.”

2. Italian engagement and cooperation

As I have commented before, while the recent peace initiatives across the Horn of Africa are highly encouraging developments, many significant tasks lay ahead. The countries of the region are still confronted by an array of significant sociopolitical, economic, and security challenges. Thus, it is imperative that the international community work cooperatively with the countries of the region to address the many outstanding challenges and help cement the recent progress and improvements.

In this regard, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s short visit to Eritrea (as well as Ethiopia) last week is a welcome and positive development. The PM’s visit, the first by a Western leader since the rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, represents a significant show of support for the recent developments. As well, it reflects an important break with the disappointing situation of recent years, where despite a long shared history, Italy and Eritrea’s relationship has been far from great. Recall how just last year, Eritrea’s Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh, revealed that, “We are working with the EU, with Germany and other European countries, but not with Italy. Italy does not want to cooperate with Eritrea and we do not know why.”

During his brief visit, the new Italian PM, who was accompanied by a high-level delegation, met with Eritrea’s President, Isaias Afwerki, as well as other Eritrean officials, and discussed a number of important issues, including the establishment of mutually beneficial economic and political ties. Moving forward, Italy, Europe’s fourth-largest economy, can play a constructive role in Eritrea, and the broader region, in many ways. For example, it can advocate for the removal of the unjust and counterproductive sanctions on Eritrea. Additionally, investment in and economic cooperation with Eritrea, which holds significant potential within a number of sectors, can help spur local job creation and stimulate much needed socio-economic growth and development, while at the same time proving beneficial for the Italian economy.

3. On the monitoring group discovering more things, but the one thing…

Earlier this week, an article published by Reuters, citing an unpublished annual monitoring group report to the United Nations Security Council, revealed that al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group based in Somalia and affiliated with al-Qaeda, is generating millions of dollars annually from the taxation of the illegal export of charcoal. While over the years numerous reports have been presented illustrating how the extremist group funds its insurgency and carries out its operations, to date there has been a notable lack of reasonable evidence presented to back the allegation that Eritrea supports the group. However, Eritrea’s alleged support for al-Shabaab has been the main reason the country has been under international sanctions for nearly a decade.

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