“The entire incident lasted several minutes, with no casualties or injuries.”
Mass protest. Mass rally. Indiscriminate gunshots. Mass casualties and death. These are some of the sensationalist words and phrases used to create buzz and portray events as simply black and white. They are often also used without nuance or context. Recently, Eritrea made the headlines after a group of teenagers walked down the streets of Asmara to voice their discontent at their school being closed. Shouting “Allahu Akbar”, the boys, mostly aged around 14-15, were walking from their neighborhood, Akria, towards the Ministry of Education.
Many Eritreans on the sidewalks, in shops and restaurants, and otherwise within the city center looked on in confusion, particularly with the chants of “God is Great” in Arabic. Generally, such loud, public proclamations are rare in a society long known for its sense of collective tolerance and respect. After some members of the group threw stones at several policemen, authorities dispersed the crowd and fired some shots into the sky. In total, the entire incident lasted several minutes, with no casualties or injuries.
“The source for the claim was the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO), which is based in Ethiopia and is an internationally recognized terrorist group.”
However, almost instantly, reports of the incident were twisted, mashed, mixed and remade to provide an account that was quite far from the reality. One of the most culpable was Aljazeera. Lately, it seems that anything negative is a treasure for Aljazeera. Associate Press, reporting from Ethiopia, the BBC, and others followed not too long after. The statement by the US Embassy in Eritrea, warning its citizens from going to the city center, was also somewhat ironic considering that people in the streets of Asmara are far safer than those in the US, who must regularly confront police brutality and killings, stop and frisk campaigns, regular mass shootings, and general violence.
Ironically, as more time passed by, the more twisted the reports became. By Wednesday, the story was completely distorted. The Washington Post and its Ethiopian writer – with an extensive history of reports on Eritrea that later ended up being debunked – stated that 100 were injured and 28 killed, despite the fact that there were no casualties and no one was injured. Notably, it was overlooked that the source for the claim was the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO), which is based in Ethiopia and is an internationally recognized terrorist group.
“The Washington Post and its Ethiopian writer – with an extensive history of reports on Eritrea that later ended up being debunked – stated that 100 were injured and 28 killed, despite the fact that there were no casualties and no one was injured.
“Self-titled experts on Eritrea and acknowledged regime change activists fueled the fire, and spread inaccurate, false accounts.”
Expectedly, news outlets jumped on the new “fact” of multiple deaths and the story quickly began trending on Twitter. Repeated efforts at clarifying and providing an accurate account of the event were made by Eritreans, located both in the Diaspora and on the ground in Asmara, but they were largely ignored. Instead, self-titled experts on Eritrea and acknowledged regime change activists fueled the fire, and spread inaccurate, false accounts. Others would continue the lies by shifting the source of the youths’ discontent, and also claiming that the Internet, telephone lines, and power in the capital were cut – despite things proceeding as normal in the city. Soon afterwards, almost as expected, the AJStream started sending private messages to many on Twitter, inviting them on their show. Obvious, right?
It is hard to understand how, instead of pursuing the truth or trying to provide an objective, balanced account, mainstream media rejected information or views of people tweeting from on the ground in Asmara, dismissing them as “supporters of the dictatorship” or “regime sympathizers.” What mainstream media failed to understand, however, is that the great majority of Eritreans – regardless of gender, class, or faith – were disappointed and angry towards the youngsters. Eritrea is not a country divided along religious or ethnic lines.
Shortly after the brief, small incident things returned back to normal. Some men – ordinary civilians – did stay out during the night, but only to ensure that there would be no more incidents. Notably, no militia or army personnel were called in to stand guard; in Eritrea, the people themselves have a sense of ownership and civil responsibility, and the prevalent attitude was that no such incidents should happen again. Women even brought them food and drinks, and it was quite telling that both Muslims and Christians were standing together in solidarity and community, side by side. However, on the other side of the world, the media and the Internet were abuzz with fake news and false accounts.
“Eritrea is not a country divided along religious or ethnic lines.”
It should be noted that, by law, Eritrea follows a secular system where religious schools and national curriculum of education are separate. The issue with the school being shut down was that some of the speeches by the staff were found to be radical and could have posed a threat to the tolerance and peace prevailing within the country. Similarly, in the past, other schools, such as Cathedrale (Catholic) and St. Mary’s (Orthodox), were also closed down illustrating that this latest closure had nothing to do with discrimination.
According to Eritrea’s National Charter of 1994, “the diverse cultures of Eritrea should be a source of power and unity. The national system should be secular, separate from religion, yet respectful of the equality of religions” (PFDJ 1994:9). This vision was enshrined during the long, bitter armed struggle where people from all layers of Eritrean society – regardless of religious background – came together to win the country’s independence.
In today’s Eritrea, implementing a secular system has helped ensure peace and tolerance in a region known more for its ethno-religious volatility, violence, and tensions. What mainstream media and individuals looking for storm and chaos in a general sea of calm totally fail to understand is that Eritreans have a long history of struggle. Eritreans paid a heavy price for independence and sovereignty, and the people condemn any signs of conflicts, violence, discrimination, or division. Thus, despite the continuous efforts to disturb this harmony, the country remains united and will continue to work toward a society based on peace, love, tolerance, and mutual respect.
Mela Ghebremedhin is a freelance journalist based in Asmara, Eritrea.