“My Personal Protection protocols Changed in Eritrea” Photojournalist Jemal Countess
By :- Simon Weldemichael
Journalists who have visited Eritrea give their eyewitness account that the gap between Eritrea’s representation on mainstream western media and Eritrea’s objective reality on the ground is beyond human imagination. Last Wednesday, I got a bunch of newly downloaded videos, magazines and articles from Rora Digital Library. In between the lectures, debates and documentary films I was looking at, I was attracted by the title “Getty Images Photojournalist Jemal Countess- Eritrea Trip Photos”, a 36-minute video, an exclusive interview done by Hello Ethiopia TV show. In the interview, Jemal Countess, who has recently visited Eritrea, expresses his amusement, admiration, and feeling about the reality of Eritrea. I have felt the honest, confident and responsible journalist’s interview would be interesting for all truth loving and seeking people to see and have transcribed some of the contents of the interview for readers.
At ‘Hello Ethiopia’ TV show, the renowned Jemal Countess shared his recent and very poignant visit to Eritrea and exceptional photography and history from his trip. Here is the excerpt.
Salome: Hi Jemal, welcome back to our show. How was your trip to Eritrea?
Jemal: Eritrea was amazing, completely not what people hear; something diametrically opposite to all the opinions, “facts and propaganda” that I have heard about Eritrea. I have already known and felt in my heart that you need a kind of ‘take everything you hear from western media with a grain of salt.’ What I saw, what I experience personally was revealed through my travel and documentation. They have just shown me that we all need to take a step back and really assess what we have heard by western media not just about Eritrea but Africa in general.
I walked into probably one of the most beautiful countries that I have never seen and I walked into an environment where my protocol basically changed. I changed my personal protection protocol because just from experience in other places, I never carry my cell phone in my pence pocket, never carry my wallet in my pence pocket and never really walk with my camera out in my shoulder or around my neck. In the course of hours and few days every thing changed because I realized that I didn’t have to worry about these issues. I quite literally walked with my phone and wallet in my pence pocket in three different cities –Asmara, Keren and Massawa. I never felt any safety issue. The people are serious, focused and devoted. I think anybody who is serious about understanding the country that has stood its ground and refused to be swallowed up by western intimidation tactics should really visit the country. Seriously!
Salome: Why did you go to Eritrea?
Jemal: I wanted to look at Eritrea in terms of how it was affected by the war. I know there are stories that were not being told. So I needed to see Eritrea. The other aspect is the research that I did years ago on Christianity and Judaism and how they arrived in Africa. I’ve always heard the key to understanding these subjects deeply is Eritrea. Certain sites in Eritrea reveal very much about the natural transition from Judaism to Hebraic community in east Africa. That was the motivation for me going.
Salome: How did you find the locals, the people there?
Jemal: The people were incredible. I just saw a reverence and respect to elders. The social interaction between the elders, community and different people was totally different. I was not from there but at the same time they were treating me like I was from there. People judge you by your physical appearance that you are a foreigner. But at the same time if you walk in the environment with a matter of respect, a sincere respect for the environment and people, then things go well. I really want to see and know Eritrea from the realistic and human perspective, and that is exactly what I did.
Salome: What about the standard of the country?
Jemal: That was refreshing. I actually walk through the streets and I can give a litmus test of urban environment. I walk through all day and all night and look at how the city feels and what it does and how it responds. I took some long walk through different parts of Asmara and Massawa. It is a clean urban environment; it is a clean country. I was happy to see that you do not have abundance of empty water bottles that trash the street, no issues of sewage and plumbing. It was not an issue at all. Everything worked out fine. Salome: Why do you think there is such a huge negative narrative when it comes to Eritrea?
Jemal: I have seen a lot of arm twisting from the west with African countries. In a nut shell it is like if you don’t do what I say I am going to demonize you… no body challenges western perspective. No body says no to the west. So things are perfect in [Eritrea.] From my perspective, I felt at ease and peace traveling between three cities. It was really refreshing. In the numerous conversations with people in all cities there was something genuine that put me at ease spiritually.
Salome: Where did you go in Eritrea?
Jemal: I started in Asmara, then I went to Keren, then to Adulis and Massawa and many places in between. I focused on the people, the architecture and archeological and sociological history. It was a beautiful journey going between all these locations.
Salome: What about the communication… did you get a chance to take some pictures?
Jemal: Let me tell you honesty. I live in Addis and free photography, a kind of reportage, social reportage is pretty difficult. There is time even when officials may stop you from shooting in Addis or question you when you do photography in Addis Ababa, especially street photography. I shot street photography in Asmara, Keren and Massawa pretty freely. Of course, you get a permit as a journalist to work and if you have paperwork the people leave you alone. Outside of that, the way people respond to camera is that they are shy to camera. By and large, I have no difficulty shooting in Eritrea. Everything is fine.
The integrity, professional ethics and bravery to speak out the truth demonstrated by Photojournalist Jemal Countess deserves appreciation. His testament is a plus to the ongoing demystification of the country. Eritrea has been selectively targeted by western media for decades. The objective of the relentless vilification campaign is to force the country to abandon its independence and confidence. However, no amount of disinformation can subdue the truth permanently. Once more, the irreducible fact is that Eritrea is a peaceful, serene and clean country.