In the home page of the BBC’s program “Assignment”, it describes the segment as an attempt to tell the bigger story. It reads: “Assignment tells the world’s stories from the point of view of those most affected by them – the victims, the witnesses – and the perpetrators.” An honorable goal indeed; but in its most recent episode which covered Eritrea, the goal was missed by a long shot.
Here is why.
It took only a stroll down the streets of Asmara by a BBC reporter to quickly figure out the victims and the witnesses have no voice at all. When 37 out of 37 people refuse to talk for fear of what might happen to them, we can presume one is left only to voice the voice of the perpetrators. That’s exactly what BBC ended up doing, only voicing the well-choreographed tour of their handlers which included comments from one Dr. Berhane who seemed to gently suggest that all the repression that is causing hundreds of thousands to flee the country is well worth it. The good doctor is definitely not on the side of victims or witnesses, she sounds like a typical apologist of repression, albeit her soft spoken words. If the idea was to make us believe that her opinion is representative of medical practitioners in the country, it didn’t work. Everyone who pays attention to Eritrea’s situation knows that the country’s reality; even the leadership of the PFDJ, the army and government officials get their medical treatment in Sudan, the Middle East, Europe and North America because of dire shortage.
To her credit, BBC’s reporter Yalda Hakim tries to remind the listener that they were invited by the government to tell “a different type of the story” and to report on its achievement in meeting some of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). It is not mentioned what the preconditions were for such an agreement. Could it be the fact that there was no mention of jailed journalists such as Dawit Isaak and the G-15, the top echelon of the EPLF who are languishing in undisclosed locations? Whatever the agreement was, the BBC only ended up giving voice to Yemane Ghebreab who is considered one of the chief architects of the tyrannical regime and his well-placed tour guides. Since it is utterly absurd to try to speak to the average Eritrean in the middle of a police state, what the BBC should have done is include “the point of view of those most affected by them – the victims, the witnesses – ….” as Assignment is proclaimed to be. The victims are in exile, in refugee camps or desperately trying to seek asylum in Israel, Europe and America, while doing what they can to organize themselves to democratize the Eritrea they left behind. Ask any 37 of them and you will get the well rounded picture of what you are looking to tell. Without that, it can hardly be called “Assignment: Eritrea”.
Though data coming from repressive regimes is as unreliable as their well-orchestrated propaganda, there is nothing wrong with celebrating achievements in human development and healthcare. After all, that is one of the goals of good governance. But a good journalist knows when s/he is being played and when to not fall only for what the eye can see. Yes, it is true that according to the United Nations Development Program :
“…[Eritrea] is making steady progress towards achieving the health related MDGs (4, 5 and 6, i.e. reduction of child mortality; reduction of maternal mortality and combating HIV and AIDS). Even though scarcity of data does not permit comprehensive conclusions, the country appears to be making good progress on the crucial area of environmental sustainability.
However, much still remains to be done especially in MDGs 1 and 2; eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, and attainment of universal primary education, as all indicators are below target.”
Where the Assignment episode seems to commit the biggest error is in its assertion that this was made possible BECAUSE OF the government’s choice to deny its people basic freedom, to maintain an indefinite national service and to make the war which ended 15 years ago as an eternal excuse. In an effort not to sound condescending, it is understandable–though not excusable–that Western journalists tend to get enamored with the pet projects of dictatorial regimes (Cuba, Venezuela, etc..) and they inadvertently tell the wrong story instead of the story they set out to tell. Ms. Yalda Hakim, perhaps impressed by the well-ironed pink bed sheets at the Mendefera Hospital or by the humble manners of Eritreans kept mentioning that “…the government’s prioritizing have paid off”. She also seems to imply that the government has no other choice but to do it this way. Worse yet, the whole episode sends the wrong message to the rest of sub-Saharan countries. The story seems to suggest, that if you want to quickly meet your MDGs, just round-up your youth into indefinite national service bordering slavery, shut all your private media, conduct no elections and have a dictator for life. Of course, every story has at least two sides and BBC’s attempt is to be appreciated. However, if a man who beats his wife and children constantly invites you to a high school graduation of one of his kids, don’t expect the public to fall for “the man knows how to prioritize” angle. It is unfair to the victims and to the listener.
What is glaringly missing from the story is the cost of opportunity Eritreans have been paying for the past 20+ years. Eritreans are surviving and in some aspects thriving NOT because of the regime they have but INSPITE of it! In the last decade alone it has lost quarter of a million of its young who decide to try life elsewhere away from repression. At least a third of the population does not live in Eritrea. The cost of all this is immeasurable. The patriotism of Eritreans and their willingness to return home is beyond comparison. If they were allowed to fully participate, Eritrea would be the shining example and an oasis of civility it was touted to be. The repressive regime of Isaias Afeworki has been a hindrance to the progress and dream of millions of Eritreans, not a cause of it.
Perhaps the real story is depicted in the picture the BBC featured on its website in this story. It is a picture of a wall mural of the Eritrean flag, with the words “Welcome to free Eritrea”. It is probably meant to show the irony and the hypocrisy of the regime. To be welcomed and to welcome others to a free Eritrea is the hope and the dream of most Eritreans and may be it will be a good omen. However, if the story is peppered with one-sided propaganda of regime officials who are better known for jailing and disappearing journalists preach about worthy sacrifices to show unverifiable results in healthcare, it is a disservice to freedom of information.
Let’s just hope BBC will be back in Eritrea soon without preconditions and restrictions