Freedom of expression: Inherent character of the Eritrean society

Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

I, as a village man, am proud of Sara Lidman’s incredible achievements in literature and her persevere and unwavering stand for humanity as a village woman. I feel a special honor to present this speech on this special occasion held in commemoration of Sara Lidman.

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Freedom of expression: Inherent character of the Eritrean society

When I was a young boy, my grandfather used to take me to the village’s communal assembly. Though I was too young, I had the privilege to learn how our community was handling issues of concern to the community democratically. In deed I had no idea as to what democracy was then. However, when I grew up and started to get some secular education, I got acquainted with the word ‘democracy’. I was also going to the communal court of our village with my grandfather. I still have vivid images and impressions of the norms of procedures of the communal judge and the elderly.

We had never had police or some sort of armed-group in our village. Everyone had equal responsibilities to safeguard the values and norms of their community and the people were living in peace and harmony.

Whenever an issue of concern rose in the village, everybody was summoned and discussed the issue in depth. Everybody had the right to say their thoughts. And consensus was reached by majority vote. Whatever task was needed to be done, the community chose the responsible person or persons and that was done by majority consensus as well. I had never seen or heard a single person asking to be nominated or elected for a certain position. Such act was considered as selfishness. Hence, someone from the community nominated a person of merit to serve the purpose of the issue raised and everyone had the right to object/oppose the nominee. Then, consensus was reached by majority vote. In fact, I remember some nominees saying that they were not qualified or knowledgeable enough to serve their community. Nonetheless, if the community gave its blessings for them, they could not trespass that.

As in the community court, any plaintiff could bring their case. Hearings were arranged on days where the community was supposed to rest from work. That was done so as to insure greater participation of the community in hearing the case. Punishment of the defendant (if found guilty) was the last option to be decided. After hearing the case, the community judge organized the elderly to solve the case peacefully by dealing with the people concerned. Reconciliation was highly appreciated those times. And that was carried out by the good will of the two parties in the case. If the case was to be settled by the judge, however, the judge was obliged to give his verdict based on the customary laws of the community.

Our society had customary laws which could address virtually all aspects of their lives during those times including animals and the environment. Even so some sources show that several of the laws were written in the 15th and later centuries, majority of the people did not have access to them. That was due to the lack of education. Most of the people were illiterate. Hence, the laws were transmitted verbally from generation to generation.

When I grew up, I could understand how much freedom our community had. They had limited intrusion from the outside world. They had the absolute right of expressing their views and opinions while respecting the rights of their fellow members. That said, there were of course inter-territorial invasions among feudal powers. However, the villages maintained their borders for centuries.

Foreign intervention in our region increased with the expansion of imperial powers mainly from the west. Eritrea had been in the eyes and interests of foreign powers due to its strategic location along the Red Sea for several centuries. However, their influence was primarily limited to the coastal regions of the Red Sea and the societal structure of the Eritrean communities remained somehow intact until the advent of the Italian colonization by the end of the 19th century. Italians introduced some education which they thought would serve their interests. And, of course, there were also religious missionaries which had significant part in the introduction of modern education to Eritrea. Several Eritreans got the chance and were able to produce some literary works which included religious and secular contents.

Printing press and modern education came to Eritrea by the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. After printing presses were introduced in Eritrea by the Catholic Mission in Massawa in about 1863 and the Swedish Evangelical Mission in Menkula in about1885/1886, several of the customary laws were either compiled and printed for the first time or reprinted from the earlier old versions in modern styles. Some sources show that the first religious Tigrinya newspaper, MelEkhti Selam (Message of Peace) was published in 1909. However, a man called Gabra-Egziabher Gila Maryam was one of those early scholars from the first generation who started the first Tigrinya newspaper “Hade Gazieta Asmera” (ሓደ ጋዜጣ ኣስመራ) in 1888 and 1889. The newspaper was written by hand before the printing press started to publish such works.

The publications produced during the Italian colonization of Eritrea were predominantly propagandistic. Nonetheless, their contribution in the development of written Tigrinya language and even some other Eritrean languages was evident. As a result, several independent newspapers flourished during the British occupation of Eritrea from 1942 to 1952. The provision of education is believed to be better during the British period than in the Italian period.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that all these developments were greatly limited to the cities and towns. Greater part of the Eritrean population was farmers and herders. Hence, they were not influenced by the modern education as such and were still illiterate. In deed there were many Italian ex-soldiers who returned home after the defeat of Italy in Eritrea in the Second World War and those people were mainly the ones who had the idea of urban life.

By and large, people in the countryside and villages were following their customary practices. They were mainly governed by them.

In 1952, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia. And it was in those 10 years that many Eritreans got the chance to learn in their national languages (Tigrinya and Arabic) of the time. However, the Ethiopian emperor decided to annex Eritrea with Ethiopia by force and consequently the Eritrean armed resistance started.

When I was a young boy, there was the influence of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front in our area. I was among the first few students who got the chance to learn in their mother language in our village along with other students from the neighboring villages. There is a school in our village, which was constructed by a benevolent man from our area in the beginning of the federation period. It was opened by teachers of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front after it was closed for many years. That lit a great hope in our people. I could realize that the people were highly apprehensive of the value of education.

The propaganda of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front was that it was fighting to gain independence and freedom for its people. It was then that I was introduced with the concept of democracy. The promises were very high and there was no reason for the people not to believe in them. The front was, after all, organized and run by people whom the society thought were its sons and daughters.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Now, I wonder when I and all my citizens are denied our birthright – the freedom of expression – by a government which is supposed to stand for freedom. In the first place, the society had a long history of expressing their ideas and views freely. Hence, the question: “What went wrong?” always puzzles me. The government of the state of Eritrea proclaimed the first press law in 1996. And that was thought to be the beginning of a new era in the arena of freedom of expression in the new country. Consequently, several private newspapers flourished in a short period of time.

However, just after five years of survival, all the private newspapers were banned in September 2001 and most of their journalists were detained. And several others fled their country. We even do not know the living conditions of those detained journalists after 16 years.

We know that in the democratic societies the press is the fourth estate after the legislative, executive and judiciary bodies. Its role as a means of balance and check to safeguard societies’ freedom is beyond words.

That is what our people is lacking; the people who had had their own means of safeguarding their freedom of expression for centuries without even the modern instruments of governance.

Thank you!

2017-10-03, Skellefteå


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