1. Concision, imagery, and statistics…
Several days ago, I read the article, “Sanctions and the Negative Campaigns against Eritrea”, written by Ruby Sandhu, an international human rights lawyer. If you have not done so already, I highly recommend that you set aside a little bit of time to go through her brief article. In the article, Sandhu, who has written extensively on Eritrea, lists and closely examines several of the recent injustices that have been committed against Eritrea since the country’s independence. These include the failure of the international community to ensure the implementation of the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) ruling, the imposition of international sanctions, and a widespread negative media campaign.
Earlier this year, under the leadership of new Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed, who took office in April on the back of years of massive and widespread anti-government protests, Ethiopia finally agreed to fully accept and unconditionally implement the EEBC final and binding ruling, thus helping pave the way toward peace and normalized ties with Eritrea. As well, at about the same time that this issue of Eritrea Profile comes to press, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is in the process of deciding upon whether to lift the sanctions against Eritrea. It is widely expected that the sanctions will be lifted after nearly a decade. The final topic addressed by Sandhu, the widespread negative media campaign, is what I would like to briefly touch upon here.
To build upon Sandhu’s important points and as I have previously written about, many mainstream analyses of Eritrea are filled with broad, sweeping generalizations, misinformed sound bites, numerous inaccuracies, and overly simplified black and white frameworks. They often lack any semblance of context and frequently approach extremely complex and complicated issues with a reductionist lens and in narrow terms.
One important, yet under examined, factor in the poor coverage on Eritrea is “concision”, which is described by world renowned scholar Noam Chomsky and others as how mainstream media content is structured so that it forces those with dissenting or alternative voices to limit the scope of answers to brief thoughts and “sound bites” that fit easily between two television ads. Essentially, coverage should be quick, brief, clear, and easy to comprehend.
Since properly covering Eritrea – which is largely unknown to most people in the West or around the world – requires delving into complex, complicated issues and providing critical details and background context, thus necessitating considerable time and effort, most media find it far quicker and much easier to simply resort to the conventional, one-sided, sensationalized discourse on Eritrea, characterizing it as an arena of barbarity, a place of unending misery, and completely lacking in basic humanity. Of course, they are able to get away with this because the prevalent Western image of much of Africa and the developing world is, and has long been, of a bunch of insignificant, destitute, conflict-ridden countries easily ignored.
In addition to concision, mainstream coverage of Eritrea frequently features the use of sensationalist or dramatic imagery and symbols (including what is commonly defined as “poverty porn”), emotion-laced language, and reference to large, often mind-boggling, figures and statistics. Collectively, these are used in order to arouse people’s emotions, such as sadness, sympathy, fear, shock, and outrage, and they seek to elicit reactions and generate support. Rather than aiming to provide consumers with understanding of very complicated and difficult to understand issues, these present overly simplified messages in a compelling way with the intention of mobilizing the public to take some type of immediate action.
In terms of figures and statistics, while they are undoubtedly crucial in helping us to clarify issues and properly understand society, it is undeniable that they can also be manipulated and used to produce a large array of conclusions or support poor arguments. Generally, most of the coverage on Eritrea is inundated with figures and statistics to provide the semblance of authority and legitimacy, portray the existence of a pressing problem, and draw concern. However, these figures and statistics are often methodologically unsound (e.g. collected with sampling bias or selective definitions) and rarely survive serious analysis or close scrutiny.
Compounding the problem of poor coverage on Eritrea is the fact that distorted reports, figures, and narratives are disseminated far and wide, without any critical analysis, thus further muddying the waters. As poor reports are spread and repeated, they inevitably come to be accepted as credible and true. Problematically, they also become the foundation for future analyses or reports. As well, it is important to note that fake and automated accounts have been used on several social media platforms. These accounts tend to spread materials at rates far beyond the capacity of human users, thus making them a powerful tool for those who wish to shape public opinion by dominating or guiding the conversation on Eritrea.
Of course, this is not to conclude that accurate, thoughtful, balanced coverage of Eritrea is non-existent. Over the years, there have been some useful, largely accurate, and generally even-handed reports and analyses of Eritrea. However, with that being said, one cannot overlook the simple fact that while individual articles or reports about the country may be accurate, the cumulative effects of poor coverage end up distorting the reality.
2. No simple panacea…
As noted above, the international sanctions on Eritrea, first imposed in 2009 and then expanded in 2011, are being discussed by the members of the UNSC. With the sanctions expected to be lifted, two thoughts quickly come to mind.
The first is that the people of Eritrea deserve great credit and merit utmost respect. They have borne extreme hardship to persevere and overcome what can only be regarded as a moral and legal injustice. The second is that as (or if) the sanctions turn into the problems of yesterday, Eritrea must be prepared to confront new challenges. It is undeniable that although the country has made considerable progress in many areas within a short time period, despite being confronted by various obstacles, many issues must yet be addressed and receive attention. With little doubt, the lifting of sanctions represents an important and positive development. However, it cannot be assumed that this will be the panacea that solves all the country’s challenges. There is tremendous work to do in terms of improving and developing the country’s physical and human capital, as well as strengthening its institutions. This process, as described by Fukuyama and others, is often “long, costly, laborious and difficult.”