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Eritrea: the good, the bad and the very ugly

"You can't talk, you can't write, you can't do anything, there is no freedom."

Eritrea most censored country 2012 5 3Enlarge
(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

In some countries, wanting to broadcast the constitution on the media might be considered a routine exercise.

Not in Eritrea, where some 55 soldiers who took over the information ministry for a day in January to demand the implementation of the 1997 constitution and basic human rights were jailed in a swathe of arrests.

It was one of the most dramatic challenges to the rule of strongman Issaias Afeworki – a former rebel chief and un-elected president since winning independence in 1991 from Ethiopia – the tightly-controlled Horn of Africa nation has witnessed.

However, Asemelash Abraha, head of television at the information ministry, the only official source of news for the country, is keen to downplay an event he dismisses as "hype."

"There was nothing," Asemelash told AFP in his office in that same information ministry, site of an Italian colonial-era hilltop fort overlooking the highland capital Asmara.

Multiple reports say it was Asemelash as station director who was forced to read out the soldiers' demands including the release of political prisoners, but the signal to the nation was cut after barely two sentences.

Asemelash however denies ever reading demands, and says that none were broadcast.

"Misguided elements here and there maybe tried to voice, I don't know, their private opinions," he said, adding that the soldiers remain in jail, except one who committed suicide.

Positive government rhetoric is in stark contrast to reports from exiled opposition and rights groups, who point to the brutal torture and jailing of critics, with national efforts focused at the creation of one of the world's most militarised nations, not towards development.

Many Eritreans sipping a macchiato in Asmara's cafés say they are too scared to speak freely.

"You can't talk, you can't write, you can't do anything, there is no freedom," said a driver who did not want to provide his name. "We are an egg, it is closed."

Elections have never been held, while Eritrea's hardline government restricts journalists -- after the government shut down independent media in 2001 – with Reporters Without Borders ranking Asmara the worst in the world for press freedom.

Asemelash's former superior Ali Abdu -- once one of the president's most trusted supporters and, as information minister, perhaps once the most vocal supporter of the regime – last year joined tens of thousands of fellow Eritreans who have fled into exile.

Again, officials are swift to play down his shock departure.

"It's immaterial for us, we don't care, it's an institution... things keep running," Asemelash insisted.

Peace in a police state 

In the arid, yellowed countryside outside the capital, relics of past battles are everywhere, a sign of how far Eritrea has come from the long years of war.

Rusted tanks dot the landscape, interspersed with military memorials to martyrs killed in the three decades independence war from Ethiopia.

But signs of development are there too: smooth, paved roads lead out from the capital while small thatch hut villages are being fitted with electricity poles.

Despite remaining in an official limbo state of "no war, no peace" with Ethiopia following a return to war in 1998-2000, Asmara has achieved grudging respect for work to boost public health, including reducing child mortality and HIV rates, while improving maternal health.

Eritrea is one of only four African nations on track to reach the UN's Millennium Development Goal of cutting maternal mortality by 75 percent by 2015, while literacy rates are almost 90 percent, one of the highest in the region.

Since 1995, life expectancy has improved from 52.5 to 62 years, and gross national income has risen by 17 percent, according to the United Nations' human development index.

But in other respects, including the most basic of human rights, the isolated country struggles.

A policy of fierce self-reliance has stifled economic growth, with a gross national income of $430, one of the poorest globally, according to the World Bank.

Daily water and electricity shortages compound frustrations while basic goods such as bread and fuel are rationed, but the government says it is working hard to support its population of six million people.

"We have to create an opportunity for everyone for the basic needs," said Hagos Gebrehiwet, head of economic affairs for the only political party. "Every child should have a chance to go to school, learn, (access) health care, water."

In public, youths praise the government's education policy, where the final of year of schooling takes place in a desert military camp, followed by years of national service on meagre pay.

"I'm ready for anything that comes," said 18-year old Hermon Amanual, dressed in military fatigues after returning home after a year away, insisting she was ready to fight for her country.

Ethiopia still occupies land ruled by a UN-backed court as belonging to Eritrea, and the threat from the far larger and more powerful neighbour concerns many.

Asemelash says conscription will continue until Ethiopia leaves Eritrean soil, insisting again the threats are external, not internal.

"If we have threats, we have to defend the country," he said.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130819/eritrea-the-good-the-bad-and-the-very-ugly