The Fog Over the Red Sea

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Eritrean information minister Ali Abdu, who is rumored to have defected this past week, helped build one of the world's strictest systems of media control.

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A central square in the Eritrean capital city of Asmara on May 11, 2008. (Radu Sigheti/Reuters)

Eritrea sits on some of the most important real estate in Africa, occupying a thin sliver of coastline at the mouth of the Red Sea. The country straddles one side of a globally significant shipping lane, and the actions of whoever's ruling in Asmara affects the stability of every neighboring country, from already troublesome places like Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, which lie just across the sea. Yet Eritrea itself is one of the most opaque places on earth. Under the 21-year rule of Isaias Afewerki, the country has aided al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Somalia, warred against Ethiopia, and precipitated a refugee crisis that has percolated throughout the Horn of Africa and the greater Middle East, cloaked in a fog that even other governments have a difficult time penetrating. Ali Abdu, the country's all-powerful information minister, is part of the reason why. In an ironic development, it is now unclear whether Abdu is still working with the government, or even if he is still in Eritrea. Thanks to the strict information controls Abdu helped erect during his decade-long tenure as information minister, his movements over the past month have been shrouded in mystery, his possible defection from Afewerki's government shielded from public view by the very system he helped create.

Evidence of Abdu's defection mostly lies in a French-language report by freelance journalist Leonard Vincent, who supposedly based his findings on both defectors and sources in Asmara. According to Eritrean diaspora sources, Abdu, who left Eritrea for Europe in November, had been traveling with state TV producer Daniel Kiflom, who is also rumored to have defected from Afewerki's government (Kiflom did not comment when reached by email). In late November, when an Eritrean opposition website claimed that Abdu had defected during his trip abroad, media reports quickly circulated that the minister had already returned to Asmara, and that reports of his departure were fabrications meant to destabilize Eritrea. Vincent's article asserts otherwise: that no one has seen Abdu in the capital for several weeks, or even spoken to him. Abdu already has family living abroad: his wife has been living in Canada for several years, and he has a brother who lives in California, a cofounder of an English-language Eritrean news site. And he hasn't been spotted in public for several weeks.

"The rumors are symptomatic of the regime's draconian grip on information."

Mohammed Keita of the Committee to Protect Journalists is not sure if the reports of Abdu's defection are true. But Keita, who covers Eritrea for CPJ and who has communicated with Abdu to voice his concerns on media freedom issues on several occasions, wouldn't dismiss them either. "It's definitely the case that he hasn't been seen in public," Keita told me. "And even when we were trying to get in touch with him three weeks ago [after the earlier reports of his defection], none of his numbers worked, or he didn't respond." Something is up, but that may or may not mean that Abdu is on his way to Canada or the United States, as some sources in the diaspora have already indicated. When reached for comment, an official at Eritrea's permanent mission to the U.N. said that Abdu is in the capital, and was still information minister. For Keita, this week's reports at least "point to an unanswered question about [Abdu's] unusual disappearance from public view."

And they point to a larger, related issue as well. Abdu played a central role in one of the most oppressive governments on earth. The opacity that now surrounds his whereabouts is a symptom of more general problems in Eritrea, issues that have made life virtually impossible for much of the population -- indeed, over a quarter-million Eritreans are living as refugees in surrounding countries, despite the absence of war or (for the most part) famine conditions within Eritrea itself. "The rumors are symptomatic of the regime's draconian grip on information," says Keita. And that, in turn, is symptomatic of Afewerki's draconian grip on nearly everything else.

* * *

Some countries in the Horn of Africa are worrying because of the potential for instability -- after all, Somalia is just emerging from 20 years of anarchy. Eritrea is the exact opposite. According to Salem Solomon, an Eritrean-American journalist and television producer who worked for Abdu's information ministry before moving to the United States, the country is run on a highly "systematic" basis, especially for its young adults. "If you are a young person working in Eritrea, you're either doing [national] service or you're a student. That's how it works," she said, describing a system where most of the country is conscripted into either the military or civil service at the end of their high school years. "You don't look for a job. It's all laid out for you. It's not in your hands" (as for the private sector, Eritrea is one of the hardest places in the world to do business, according to the World Bank).

Solomon said that thanks to recent reforms, some Eritreans spend their senior years of high school in military camps, preparing for several subsequent years of national service. "Your understanding of politics and what it means to be Eritrean starts when you're young and it plays into your career," she says. "Before you graduate high school, you're already in the military. Whether you're a doctor or a journalist or whatever you become later, you've already had political education and military training in your system to understand how things work." During military service, Solomon says there is "political education every day. It's just part of the routine."

The strict control over the lives and career trajectory of the country's youth is an outgrowth of Afewerki's aggressive stance towards Ethiopia, Eritrea's far more populous eastern neighbor. Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1992. Even though Afewerki fought alongside the late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi in the struggle against Ethiopia's communist regime, the two became bitter opponents, waging a brutal war over a disputed border--and likely over more opaque and personal matters -- in the late 1990s. The enmity between the two countries continues, even after Zenawi's death in August.

Solomon served in the military, and then was able to earn a journalism degree from Asmara University, on the government's dime -- she says her education was repaid in the form of her later work for the English-language desk at Eri-TV, the state television station. "It's all about growth and achievement, you know," she said of Eri-TV's programming. "Only good stuff." The station focused much of its energies on covering "things a government should do," like development projects or meetings.

Bealfan Tesfay, a U.S.-based journalist who worked in Eritrean state media as late as 2010, has a similar view of the ministry's narrow editorial priorities. "It was not exactly journalism," he told me of his work as an editor and television producer. "It was propaganda... In the west, we think of the press as the watchdog of the society. In Eritrea, it's used for the purposes of upholding the interests of the state of Eritrea." He wrote about national holidays and celebrations, and churned out stories with a clear anti-western and anti-American tilt -- Afewerki is still suspicious of the United States for what he views as its refusal to pressure Ethiopia, a close American ally, into accepting international arbitration on the countries' border dispute. Story topics would be passed down from on high, and he would sometimes need official approval to even conduct interviews. Some stories were completely off limits, including one that would turn out to be arguably the largest event in the entire world. "Back in February of 2010 there was a total blackout of the Arab Spring," he said. "I was working in the office and was instructed not to print anything about the Arab Spring. As far as the government media in our country was concerned, there was no Arab Spring. The events in Egypt weren't reported."

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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