Monday, March 4, 2024

Reflections on the Beginning of Eritrean Free Press

Whenever I walk on the streets of Toronto from the subway station to where I work, I encounter people who distribute a free copy of the Metro newspaper. I don’t know whether it’s ingrained in my mind or if my memory gets refreshed every day, but I remember Setit—the first newspaper I co-founded in Eritrea. The newspaper I hold in my hand reminds me of Setit, and the people who distribute Metro with their broad smiles remind me of the children who used to distribute Setit and other newspapers in Asmara. That nostalgic feeling always throws me back to the past.

About two decades ago, the Eritrean government issued a law that permitted private ownership of print media. It was the highlight of the year for many people like myself who wished to exercise our democratic rights and be part of the greater conversation in the national dialogue. Although print media has a long history in Eritrea, this period marked the beginning of another long journey.

Missionaries introduced the modern printing press to Eritrea in 1866. However, publication began to grow in 1891 only after Italy established Eritrea as its colony. After establishing the print press in Eritrea, Protestant missionaries were also the first to start a newspaper in Eritrea. The first Eritrean religious newspaper—መልእኽቲ፡ ሰላም። (Message of Peace)—started in 1909. But, expectedly, the scene was soon taken over by Italian propagandist newspapers that primarily served the colonial agenda. The newspapers mainly targeted Italians living in Eritrea at that time. The dominant topics of these newspapers were politics, sports, and commerce. With the Italian educational policy of limiting Eritreans to the 4th grade, Eritreans didn’t have a forum of their own to practice freedom of the press. The segregationist policy of the Italians also did not enable them to take part in their own affairs.

This was later to change with the arrival of the British. The British Military Administration (1941-1952) started a newspaper in the local language, Tigrinya. ናይ ኤርትራ ሰሙናዊ ጋዜጣ (The Eritrean Weekly News) was the official organ of the British that started in 1942. In many ways, it allowed Eritreans to write, debate, and voice their opinions in their language. Its associate editor was Woldeab Woldemariam. The newspaper had a circulation of 5000 copies[i]. Moreover, Hanti Ertra and Wihidet Eritrea, which was the Arabic version of Hanti Ertra, were prominent newspapers in the 1950s.

The once-vibrant discussions in the newspaper were thwarted after Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia. Until Eritrea’s independence in 1991, electronic and print media were owned by the government and only served the purpose of the colonizer.

The long years of silence showed promising signs in June 1996. Implementation of the Eritrean Press Law (Press Proclamation No. 90/1996) was the beginning of a new chapter. I remember vividly reading Eritrea’s Gazette to digest the terms and conditions of that proclamation. The crucial contents were very vague and had a wide room for interpretation. For example, in Part five of that proclamation, it says a journalist is not allowed to disseminate “any document or secret information on the supreme interest of the nation and people, as well as national security and defense secrets,” but it failed to give the details. So, the interpretation of such a clause will fall into the hands of the court, which is not independent of the executive body. Criticizing a minister of defense or Internal Affairs for his/her ill-behavior can be interpreted as an issue of national security in the eyes of some people. Similarly, according to the vague article, exposing corruption of some key actors in the government can also be construed as the journalist acting against the law. The officials of the government or the court will always have an upper hand in interpreting the proclamation in their way. However, my wife and I as a team, and my two former friends Semret Seyoum and Habtom Mihreteab, were not discouraged by the intimidating tone or vagueness of the proclamation or the potential risk to which we would expose ourselves. We decided to proceed with our research to start a newspaper. It took us about six months to put our findings on the table. Worse than the vague Eritrean press law, the findings of our research were very discouraging.

There was only one printing house in the country that could print the volume of a newspaper. That printing house was owned by the government. The printing cost was very expensive. It cost Nakfa $1.25 to print a single copy of a newspaper with a print run of 3,000. There was only one distributor in the entire country, and his area of distribution was limited to Asmara. The circulation of the government-owned newspaper—Hadas Ertra—was only 10,000 while the population then was 3.5 million. Though this paper was sold for Nakfa $0.50, half of every printed issue returned unsold despite being distributed for free in most offices.

We were really anxious about the awkward position we would face in dealing with the government-owned printing house. We were concerned about the poor reading habits of our people. We were puzzled about why the printing cost was so high and wondered whether we could afford it. We were also disturbed by the poor distribution mechanisms in place. According to our projections, we wouldn’t make any profits until we hit at least the third anniversary of our paper. Nevertheless, we were determined to dive in and launched ourselves to start raising funds.

I shared the idea with my father. I explained to him with excitement and passion the detailed results of our research and the amount of money I needed to fulfill the dream I had of establishing a newspaper. My father was apprehensive. “First, this is not a profitable business, and second, it is a risky business,” he said. “This government is not ready to be criticized. You are young, and there are so many things you don’t know.” He pinpointed so many layers of obstacles that I hadn’t seen before or uncovered in our research. I had never debated with my father on any issue to that extent. I was frustrated because I ran out of convincing arguments. He didn’t want to encourage me and at the same time, he didn’t want to disappoint me. So he gave me a one-room office and a small amount of money to start with.

My friends were also not successful in raising adequate funds. So we decided to start small by opening our first office in Gejeret, Asmara. The application process was simple and straightforward. I applied for a permit from the Ministry of Information to publish a newspaper as an individual. We named our newspaper Setit after the only river in Eritrea, as we wanted our newspaper to flow like a river without interruption. We agreed to print 5,000 copies to reduce the unit price and sell

the newspaper for Nakfa $1.25 to cover our expenses. If we printed 3,000 copies, we would have to pay Nakfa $1.25 per copy. But if we printed 5,000 copies, each paper would cost Nakfa $1.00.

We printed our first bi-weekly issue on August 21st, 1997. That was the beginning of the first independent newspaper in Eritrea. We recruited shopkeepers and children who would like to work on commission in distributing the paper. Though we believed that the content of our paper was rich, entertaining, and informative, we were worried about whether we could sell the copies. The distribution mechanism we had in place was weak, and the price was high. Our distribution was limited only to Asmara, and our price was more than double that of Hadas Ertra.

It’s challenging to be a pioneer. You have no one to refer to. You are entirely on your own. So we had to test the waters ourselves, learn from our mistakes, and be ready for surprises—good or bad. It’s an emotional rollercoaster.

To our surprise, around 11:00 a.m., the children who took 50 copies each to sell on the streets started to come back one after the other with cash in their hands and asked for more copies to sell. The shopkeepers kept calling us to get more copies. The 5,000 copies that we expected to sell in two weeks were gone in just one day. It was the most delightful day.

We received several calls and letters of encouragement as well as complaints about the price. We accepted the comments and dropped our price to Nakfa $1.00 just on the next issue. Our circulation grew month after month as we expanded our distribution system to all major cities of Eritrea.

Two months later, another independent newspaper called Liela (Oct 10, 1997) started, then Tsigienay (November 19, 1997), Mestiat (Nov. 30, 1997), Wintana (March 1998), Kestedebena (Nov 24, 1998), Mekalih ( Dec 29, 1998), Keih-Bahri (Jan 30, 1999), Zemen (Feb 21, 1999), Asmara Lomi (March 21, 1999), Admas (May 1, 1999), Maebel (July 1, 1999), Adal (July 14, 1999), Selam (Sept 3, 1999), Timnit (Sept 3, 1999), and Millennium (Oct 6, 1999), respectively. The fledgling independent press was not a slow process; rather it exploded. At one point, there were eighteen private newspapers. The driving force behind this roll was the very positive reaction that came from the Eritrean public and their unexpectedly high demand. (This was mainly due to the down-to-earth nature of the independent newspapers. They reported timely issues that the government media was unwilling to cover). The cooperation between the independent press and its readership was a totally new and pleasant surprise for all. It was also the source of our growth. The frequency of our publication increased from printing twice a month to twice a week. Our circulation grew from 5,000 to 40,000 copies on every issue, and our staff grew from three to 12 people.

I remember every step of our way that led us to both success and destruction simultaneously while holding the Metro Newspaper in my hand. Unfortunately, Setit was banned on September 18, 2001, with the rest of the independent newspapers. Two of my colleagues and several innocent journalists from the other newspapers were thrown into jail. According to recently revealed documents, only five of the 12 journalists are alive in deteriorating health in the worst dungeons. Many others and I fled the country.

I live in Toronto now, but every day I travel in my thoughts to the past—my journey with Setit. I am optimistic that one day, Setit will start flowing again in Eritrea and flow just like the Eritrean Setit river.

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