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Eritrean radio station Radio Erena provides a voice for the voiceless

Broadcasting from Paris, Fathi Osman's Radio Erena challenges the government's monopoly on truth and champions those who gave their lives for freedom of expression.

Fathi Osman receives his award. Credit: Rebecca Vincent.Last night turned out to mark a double-celebration for Eritrean journalist Fathi Osman. While the father-of-four nearly let his 51st birthday slip by unnoticed, he certainly couldn’t play down his radio station’s spectacular win at One World Media Awards in London’s BAFTA building.

Radio Erena (‘Our Eritrea’) broadcasts from Paris, where Fathi now lives with his wife and children, having fled the dictatorship five years ago. The station was founded in 2009 by the well-known exiled Eritrean journalist Biniam Simon, with support from Reporters Without Borders. The goal? To offer a lifeline of independent news, information and entertainment for Eritreans both in their homeland and worldwide.

As Fathi held out his hand to shake mine, he noticed his fingers were stained inky blue. “Ah, you can tell I’m a writer,” he observed with a smile. Currently Radio Erena’s Assistant Project Manager, in the past Fathi worked variously as a journalist and diplomat before he left the Eritrean embassy in Riyadh to seek safety in France. “I had developed ideas that the government did not accept,” he explained, “and you know, with these kinds of conflicts, in the end you will meet trouble.”

Fathi’s family was among more than 4,000 Eritreans who flee each month. And is it any wonder, given the UN June 2016 report that the regime has been responsible for crimes against humanity since 1991? Known globally as a predator of press freedom, President Isaias Afewerki has led Eritrea to be ranked consistently as the very lowest of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, though in 2017 the regime came second-last as North Korea deteriorated even further.

Known globally as a predator of press freedom, President Isaias Afewerki has led Eritrea to be ranked consistently as the very lowest of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index

Afewerki’s purges in September 2001 ended Eritrea’s free press – by now, seven of the 11 journalists arrested at that point have died in detention. This year at least 15 journalists are believed to be detained without charge or trial. Dawit Isaak, a Swedish-Eritrean citizen who had returned to Eritrea to open Setit – the first independent newspaper there, has not once talked to a lawyer in 16 years of imprisonment. His fate is unclear.

Far from having deterred the four journalists based in Radio Erena’s newsroom (as well as their 25 or so correspondents worldwide), these appalling abuses have driven them to pour every effort into remedying the crackdown. The station broadcasts in Tigrinya and Arabic by satellite and short wave – and is available online or via a mobile phone app.

Radio Erena at work. Credit: Isabel/RSF Africa. “Within the whole of Eritrea there’s only one radio station, one newspaper,” Fathi explained. “That means the ‘truth’ is dominated by the government. Radio Erena is working to counter that. We do everything, from exposing news that the government doesn’t want people to know, to hosting shows for singers and writers – and raising awareness of human rights is very important to us.”

Fathi was overjoyed to discover the extent of their programmes’ impact while he was in Geneva to hear the UN report of the Eritrean regime’s crimes against humanity. He described how “many from the Eritrean community showed up and I found out that many listeners had learned about their rights from Radio Erena. We felt then that there was something tangible in our work.”

The ‘truth’ is dominated by the government. Radio Erena is working to counter that.

One World Media Awards celebrate the most outstanding press coverage of the developing world, recognising journalists whose work boosts cultural understanding while promoting global equality and justice. “I think the Special Award is going to boost our station,” Fathi said, “as it’s an acknowledgement of the credibility and professionalism of Radio Erena.”

At the One World Media Awards. Photo: Rebecca Vincent. The journalist added: “We’ve been planning to expand but are having problems with funding – it runs out this summer. Our plans have to be short-term, but we really want to recruit more people who speak Tigrinya as well as broadcast some programmes in English. The plans are all there, but of course we need to put these to work through funds.”

Along with their two daughters and two sons, Fathi and his wife have settled happily into life in Paris. “To begin with, every refugee has tension – being unable to do anything, anxiety,” he said, “but when one gets a job, life is positive and one adapts.” Could he ever imagine a return to Eritrea? “I always encourage my colleagues by saying that journalists should go back home if things were to change for the better,” Fathi replied. “We could have a big media corporation – with a newspaper and a radio station, maybe even a TV station. This is ambitious, but it’s good to dream. To dream that things might change in Eritrea, to have democracy.”

“We could have a big media corporation – with a newspaper and a radio station, maybe even a TV station. This is ambitious, but it’s good to dream. To dream that things might change in Eritrea, to have democracy.”

On reaching adulthood Fathi went abroad to learn, earn money, and start a family. But in his mid-20s he returned to Eritrea. “The assumption was that our country was growing,” he said of the time around Eritrea’s 1991 reinstatement of independence. “I was young, so I thought I could grow with my country. We felt we could make an African ‘Singapore’ out of Eritrea. That was a very famous idea in the early 1990s. We were a hard-working, big community, and it gave us hope that things could be better.”

Fathi continued: “It was a huge disappointment, dismay, that the revolution did not realise the dream of Eritrea. I once wrote an article about the advantage of being late, of gaining our independence late. I thought it gave us the chance to see other African countries getting into trouble so we would not repeat the mistakes of others.

“Now it is not the mistakes of others but mistakes of our own. They’re different, Martian, horrible mistakes: violation of human rights, making the country a big jail, not allowing people to move with their families. In 26 years we’ve created a monster.”

At Radio Erena. Photo: Isabel, RSF Africa.Fathi’s book 'Eritrea: From A Dream of Independence to the Nightmare of Dictatorship' (not yet translated into English) explores how the country ended up in its present situation – a state where the President could say in 2014: “Those who think there will be democracy in this country can think so in another world.”

As we talk in a Piccadilly café, Fathi mourns people he knew who had simply vanished overnight. One old friend, Abdu Heggi, is still missing. “After Eritrea’s independence, he worked for the Ministry of Information,” Fathi said. “But three months ago, at 3am, he had a knock at the door and disappeared.”

The journalist spoke of how widespread such abuses are. “Everyone is touched by it,” he said. “Many families have lost someone to prison, execution or forced disappearance.” This reality escalates the importance of their radio station’s broadcasts. “Radio Erena is the voice of the voiceless,” Fathi said. “By this we mean mainly those who have been in prison since 2001. We want this award to be for the people who gave their lives for the freedom of expression in the country – to draw the attention of the world to their plight.

 “Radio Erena is the voice of the voiceless."

“That means we are asking the international community to intervene and help release these people. To put more pressure on Eritrea to release them.”

Learn more about Radio Erena’s work at www.erena.org or contact Reporters Without Borders at www.rsf.org.

About the author

Sophie Baggott is Policy and Research Associate at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. She tweets at @sophieb30.


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