Eritrean Refugees in the Western Press: Solidarity or Colonialism?

In his cutting 2005 satire "How To Write About Africa," Kenyan author and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina derided the Western media's simplification and condescension of the continent. Ten years later, our widened media landscape still barely makes room for Africans to speak for themselves.

I learned the true extent of this after researching and writing an amateurish article about Eritrea and its refugee outflow, and then engaging in an online dialogue with Eritrean readers, who are frustrated by the Western media's portrayals of their Horn of Africa nation. Some people I talked to (via emails and written messages) defended the Eritrean government, which many Westerners deem the world's most repressive. Some people seemed radical enough to be members of an Eritrean Ministry of Twitter Propaganda, portraying their country as a veritable Disneyland. But even those who accepted the claims made in my and many other articles--of the Eritrean regime's forced conscription, Orwellian surveillance and censorship, and state-sponsored rape, torture, and killings--still feel that Western media condemnations of the regime exercise colonialism rather than solidarity .

Western discourse on Eritrea has grown over the past few years as thousands of Eritrean migrants have washed up on Europe's shores, dead or alive. Eritrea, though small and not at war, has become Africa's largest source of refugees to Europe, with over 3,000 Eritreans fleeing north every month.

The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and other reputable Western media outlets lay the blame entirely on Eritrea's autocratic government, describing Eritrea as one large prison camp, a uniquely brutal dictatorship devoid of liberties, hostile to the West and to our allies in the region, "the North Korea of Africa." But the scant solutions they propose to Eritrea's refugee outflow--namely, economic sanctions and regime change--reek of colonialism and ignore the interests and perspectives of Eritrean refugees themselves.

Eritrean perspectives writ large are practically absent from Western media portrays; we continue entrusting distinctly non-Eritrean reporters--despite the last accredited international reporter being expelled from the country in 2007--to filter our thumbnail image of this complicated and troubled nation.

My mediocre article seemed to hit a nerve with Eritreans online. Within hours of its publication, my "cut-and-paste journalism" was being decried by Eritreans on Twitter:

Some took serious issue with my characteristically Western "demonization" of Eritrea, either telling me to mind my own business or to come and see what a great place their country was. But others were more interested in setting the historical record straight, clarifying critical aspects of their country's history that the Western media often excludes. My article's claim that Eritrea sends soldiers to fight alongside Al Shabaab, which I had exaggerated based on an assertion in this Reuters article, raised questions from several readers.

Over a dozen other readers reacted to the omission or understatement of Eritrea's most defining legacy: its relationship with Ethiopia. Many Western portrayals mention Ethiopia as an endnote in the more gripping narrative of the repressive Eritrean regime, yet the histories of Eritrea and Ethiopia are perhaps the most intertwined of any two countries in Africa.

Ethiopia's 1961 annexation of Eritrea (after Eritrea gained independence from its colonizer Italy), the three-decade war that followed (1961-91), the conflict's 1998-2000 resurgence, and Ethiopia's persistent violation of the 2002 Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) provisions rarely get so much as a mention in the European and American press. The Ethiopian government's heinous acts against its own people go similarly under-mentioned, as seen in its recent crackdown of Oromo protests. In this, the West's media coverage runs parallel to its diplomacy: condemnation and isolation of the Eritrean regime, with a blind eye to neighboring Ethiopia's abuse of Eritreans and Ethiopians alike.

My casual Twitter conversation doesn't prove or discount anything. But for me, it rightfully ruptured the West's monotone narrative about a country, whose Western narrators in large part have no personal stake in Eritrea's favor, and if swayed by their own countries' diplomacy, may even have a stake against it.

Learn more about Eritrea from Eritreans themselves. PEN Eritrea is a global network of Eritreans sharing ideas and insights, a space of free speech and expression that the Eritrean government fails to provide, several of whose journalists are profiled her by The Guardian (whose series "Inside Eritrea," to its credit, tries to correct the Western record on Eritrea). Other groups and sites, such as the Eritrean Diaspora Network, operate similarly. matches writers and developers with people living in repressive regimes like Eritrea to share stories straight from their source.

The more Westerners tries to write Eritrea's story themselves--even with the best intentions--the more dangerously wrong it will be.