Media’s role in Eritrea’s Independence
by Iyassu Habte (Wedi Haleqa)
In 1961, the Eritrean people embarked on the road of armed struggle after Ethiopia forcefully annexed their country. Over the 30 years that followed the Eritrean people, against their will, had been embroiled in a bitter and bloody war against the army of the Ethiopian empire and itssuccessor, the military government of Ethiopia, the Dergue, to establish a politically independent country. Eritrea’s mission was to build a peaceful and prosperous nation. During this period, the media played a powerful role in realizing the lofty aspirations of the people. This article focuses on the role of media over a span of 20 years (1970- 1991), the period when the Eritrean armed struggle entered a new stage. The media made great strides in bringing Eritreans together and vigorously pushed the revolution to the final victory.
Though the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) was born in 1970, it was not until January 1979 when it launched its first ever clandestine radio station, the Voice of the Masses (VoM), in the liberated areas. The radio broadcast in six languages including Tigrigna, Arabic, Afar, Tigre, Kunama and Amharic. Broadcasts, publications and other forms of mass media, gave astrongimpetustotheEritreanarmed struggle. The enemy wasshocked by the initiation of the radio and spared no efforts to jam the broadcasting and shell the station several times. Despite this, the radio continued its program until the Independence Day without a hitch.
Through its daily broadcast, the radio served as an important medium of mass communication in arousing nationalism and providing truthful and objective information to the people and, as such, it won trust and confidence from its avid listeners living in Eritrea, East Africa and the Middle East. The radio enabled the EPLF to uncover the atrocities committed by the enemy on our people, to spread military news, development activities, history of other liberation movements and international news. Other programs such as drama, poems, revolutionary songs and the like were also broadcasted to arouse mass fervor.
The radio served to expose the enemy’s pack of lies, dampening its soldiers’ fighting spirits and calling them to defect to the EPLF.
The thousands of Ethiopian soldiers captured in battles used to send messages to their families and relatives in Ethiopia.
In addition to the electronic media, the print media injected unprecedented influence into the revolution. Both the EPLF and its mass organizations were issuing an extensive range of publications on a variety of topics related to the armed struggle. Back then, there were about 115 periodicals in different languages, 60% in local and 38% in foreign languages, published and distributed to nationals worldwide including in Ethiopia. Sixty two percent of the publications were produced by the EPLF and the rest by Eritrean mass organizations.
Some of the publications include: tihisha,mahta, merih, bdho, sewrana, hagerey, harbegna in Tigrigna and Arabic versions; Liberation, Eritrea Information, Eritrea in Struggle, Vanguard, Eritrea Relief Committee Newsletter, VoiceofEritreanwomen/ workersinEnglishlanguages; Eritrea Oggi, Rivoluzione in Italian; and Erythree en lute, Erytree Solidarite in French languages. There were also Amharic-language newspapers (Ethiopian language) which include tenes and ewnet.
When many foreign journalists visited the liberated areas, news stories about Eritrea started to get attention in several mainstream outlets. Some of the visitors even got a chance to bear witnessto actual war launched by the EPLF against the enemy.
Many foreign writers and journalists wrote a number of books abouttheEritrean revolution. Among them are ‘Never Kneel Down’ by James Firebrace and Stuart Holland; ‘Against all Odds’ by Dan Connell; ‘Even the Stones Are Burning’ by Roy Pateman’; ‘The Long Struggle of Eritrea for Independence and Constructive Peace’ by Lionel Cliff and Basil Davidson. Many others also made documentary films about Eritrea and not least among the films were: ‘The Forgotten War,’ ‘Time to Heal,’ and ‘Songs of the Next Harvest.’ Indeed, the Eritrean people greatly appreciate their contributions which made the Eritrean struggle known to the international community. Starting from 1984 until Eritrea’sliberation, a ten-day festival used to be held in Bologna, Italy. The festival featured meetings, seminars, cultural dancing, photo exhibitions and sport activities. Each year, the EPLF sent a delegation to attend the festival and hold meetings with the participants in order to keep them abreast of the developments inside Eritrea. In addition, chairpersons of women, students and workers unions conductseminarswiththeirrespective membersaimedatstrengtheningtheir unity and mounting their support for the struggle. Indeed, the Bologna festival was the hallmark of Eritrean solidarity and a good opportunity for thousandsofEritreanstodemonstrate their spirit of standing together in times of difficulties.
To make the festival more colorful and lively, well-known Eritrean singers from Europe and other places were joining in the festival and performing cultural music for the participants, who were reveling in the traditional songs and dancing to their heart’s content. In fact, it was a good opportunity for families, relatives, and friends to get together after years of separation, relieving homesickness. The festival was held with nationalistic enthusiasm, vigor and vitality.
The mass organizations in Europe and elsewhere were also engaged in conducting public diplomacy works. They held demonstrations distributing leaflets to passers-by and presenting signed petitions to government officials or parliament members to seek political solution to the Eritrean problem. They forged strong relationship with political parties, relief organizations and communities of other countries.
Representing their country, they participated in cultural exhibitions held in Europe and the showcased Eritrean people’s traditions and cultures. In short, they remained pillars ofstrength to the bitter end and ambassadorstoEritrea in every sense of the word. What is more, a number of ‘Eritrean Supporting Committees’ were set up in many European and other countries to drum up support for Eritrea. Its members were nonEritreans and most of them were prominent politicians, academicians and influential people.
In general, the gathering or the media played a great role in elevating the confidence, unity and perseverance of Eritreans to new heights and imbued them with love among each other and patriotism. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that the Eritrean nationalism reached its apogee during the war of independence, which in fact was a driving force for success.
Ethiopia spared no expensestowin the war and stamp out the revolution using its military supremacy and diplomatic superiority. In addition, it unleashed a string of mendacious propaganda against Eritrea aimed at curtailing its growing influence, weaning it off international support and muting the Eritrean voice for justice.
The EPLF and its mass organizations thwarted the enemy’s misleadingandmaliciouspropaganda against the Eritrean struggle, which were nothing but a tissue of lies. So, the Ethiopian military offensives and its anti-Eritrea smear campaign failed to deliver results because there was a huge gap between fantasy and reality.
Ethiopia had consistently and deliberately tried to deny the reality on the ground, including the presence of thousands of its prisoners of war. But thanks to the mass media, many of the military victories won against the enemy and other developments in the liberated areas were made headlines in the mainstream media. Ethiopia’s ostrich policy was nothing more than a means of hoodwinking its people and the international community.
Finally, there is no denying the fact that mass media is a doubleedged sword and/or does not always lead to the desired results. With respect to the Eritrean independence war, however, the victory had never been called into question only because it was a just war or people’s war due to the fact that Ethiopia illegally established a colonial rule in Eritrea. On top of this, the extreme nationalism, the strong resilience of the people to conquer the hardships, the huge financial contribution made by Eritreans towards the armed struggle, the unselfish dedication and the loyalty to the country and people are the sine qua non for Eritrean independence.