Opposition Radio: Anybody Listening in Eritrea?
Opposition Radio: Anybody Listening in Eritrea?
Eritrea’s geographical location and particularly its altitude was a unique place for good reception of radio transmissions from all over the world, long before the satellite technology made its emergence. Michela Wrong once described the Hamasien plateau in Eritrea as a Babel tower in which place the United States located its radar based listening devices. If willing, the Eritrean public can therefore easily tune in to any radio stations ignoring the irregular broadcasting from the diaspora, the occasional jamming from the regime, and the infrequent power outages. The radio, according to some Eritreans, will be by far more effective to reach the large majority of Eritreans in both inside and outside the country than the internet medium, given the low level of reading habits. Nonetheless, its role will stay restricted. It will only serve as a “crutch” among other weapons of resistance; its critical role, as invariably witnessed in history, will be during a serious rebellion or military conflict. These have not yet manifested in Eritrea.
The thing is, however, does the public take advantage of this exceptional characteristic of the land and loyally listen to it. Nobody seems to have a clue for lack of any methodology to find out the percentage of people who regularly or intermittently follow the broadcasts. Likewise, nobody knows the efficacy of the radio transmissions made by Weldeab Woldemariam from Cairo, Egypt, in the mid-60s or the importance of the EPLF’s Voice of the Masses. Though there is no research available about the subject matter, some of the Eritrean nationalists never forget to mention the affair. The solution to our contemporary puzzle is probably not expensive and complex.
Thousands of Eritreans, particularly the parents of Eritreans in the diaspora, travel back and forth to the West, and many of them are either citizens of the countries such as the United States and the European Union or carry some type of residence permit. This demographic group lives for a year or more in the place of visit and returns back to Eritrea on a regular basis, taking advantage of the monetary help and health services of the host countries and returns to his/her place of origin when the climate is intolerable. During its stay abroad, it has plenty of time in its hands. The lesson from the past is useful.
The experience of the “sovereign” stations such as the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the Voice of Liberty and Radio Free Europe, which are described as “substitute” is a telling example. Denied an easy access to talk with the ordinary communist subjects during the Cold War period, the entities devised a method of asking people who travel to the West. The people may be of the elite sort closely or loosely affiliated with the communist regimes, and may not be without bias. The travelers from Eritrea in comparison are more variegated and heterogeneous, and therefore good material to study. Radio Erena, Radio Asena, Radio Forum (Medrek), and the recently re-activated Radio Delina must do a reflection and conduct a survey. Scarce resources available as there are, these diaspora entities should pause and soberly look at their situations. If they do, the diaspora radio mediums may discover some truth not very palatable.
North Korea is often compared to Eritrea for its political repression, human rights violation and economic disarray that keeps its masses poor and in complete despair, and it is rightly so. One wonders, however, why all the radio transmissions beamed to North Korea that have been supported by South Korea and the rest of the Western world for decades have not aroused the people into some sort of civil disturbance. The countries are rich and powerful and resource had never been a problem. What is “preventing” then the radio programs on freedom and civil liberties as practiced in the democracies from reaching the targeted audience? Clearly, the rogue Korea is different in some sense from Eritrea. Its military industry though crude is by far more developed than the one Eritrea aspires to have. For instance, it has the capacity to reconfigure the TV stations for only viewing the state propaganda. Short wave radios may also be in the same category. Are these formidable technical troubles “stopping” the people in the communist country from internalizing the values of the liberal world and fight the tyranny in their land? What is the thing that made them prostrate?
If a society had never had any “values” in its culture to begin with or has completely lost it along the road, argues an expert, the efficacy of liberal radio transmissions is not certain.  He compares the experience of Poland during the Solidarnosc period, (which had some traces of liberal values with some of the countries in Eastern Europe and the people in the Soviet Union.) The values left over from its “first republic” era were not completely extinguished despite the effort of the communist authorities, helping the trade unions and the Catholic Church to launch a powerful non-violent resistance. The values gave Poland a head start in contrast to some of the rest of the Eastern European countries, which had to wait for Perestroika.  North Korea, however, is an extreme example; it has remained in the grips of a “communist” dynasty for seventy years following a brutal Japanese colonization.
Its look-alike Eritrea falls in the same category regardless of the protestations of the nationalists who attribute the Federal experience for the existence of some kind of democracy. The gedli era was even worse; it was blight and a period of darkness. If culture does not explain the prevailing conditions in North Korea and Eritrea, what other situations inform us? Despair and complete defeat are not rare in human history, necessitating the intervention of outside powers. Radio transmissions alone without a public with the bare minimum of existence, and dignity and little patience or energy to listen has little usefulness; more importantly, radio transmissions without other critical junctures will be as the saying goes, like “preaching to the believers” regardless of the content of the material. (This writer is often amused about the validity of the program on the “mismanagement of the Eritrean Airlines”; addressed in the opposition radios, which has little to do with the wretched life of the masses in Eritrea.)
Rationing and long lines are the daily experience of the average subjects in totalitarian systems, leaving them little time do any sober thinking. They are reluctant to invest any time or risk themselves to it. In extra-ordinary times, however, such as a successful coup or a sustained military siege, the public recovers from its coma-like existence and lends its ears to any information available. The Eritrean masses during the long gedli sojourn probably did not listen to the Voice of the Masses until the last few years of the EPLF military advance, and that was not largely for the utopia promised in the waves but the anxiety for their long lost children.
The major flaw of the opposition radio in the diaspora is neither in the limits of money needed to run the radio slot times nor in the technology nor in the jamming of the waves by the regime in Eritrea, but rather in the material itself. Imagine a group of formerly disaffected communists running Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty during the Cold War and are given free rein to only criticize the communist system in power without touching the communist ideology itself. Would the public have listened to them? A program run by communists who run from a communist regime would not have made sense to the masses under the Iron Curtain.
In the same manner, the programs beamed into Eritrea are from nationalists, who relentlessly repeat the “betrayal” of the “glorious” journey of the gedli or its “values” leaving no other interpretations for the listener at home in Eritrea. Reconsidering the gedli journey or the road to “freedom” has been in earnest progress in the cyber world, but the airwaves have so far showed a complete reluctance.
We may know little about crisis of the diaspora radio transmissions until the proposed survey is made, but omitting the ghedli construct is certainly a major component that radio programs should pay attention to, if they have any respect for their audience.
 Semelin, Jacques. Communication and Resistance. The Instrumental Role of Western Radio Stations in Opening up of Eastern Europe, The French Journal of Communication Volume 2, Issue 1, 1994, pp.55-69.