The website daring to mock the Eritrean regime – By Catherine Bennett ,Anglophone Journalist

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Eritrea has been in the grip of a dictatorship for over 20 years. Democracy in the African country is non-existent, and it has been in last place on the World Press Freedom Index for the last eight years.  Under these circumstances, the creation of a satirical and parodic website called The Awaze Tribune is not only unusual, but courageous.

The Awaze Tribune launched in early 2016 and publishes humorous ‘news’ stories to appeal to an African audience, in the style of British satirical site The Daily Mash, or The Onion or the Borowitz Report in the United States. It is the first publication of its kind in the country, and its contributors risk harsh repercussions from the regime. Whilst many on the editorial board are living outside of the country, some contributors and family still live in Eritrea.

Screen grab from the website.

Eritrea sits in the Horn of Africa, flanked by Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. It was internationally recognised as independent from Ethiopia after a referendum in 1993, but the constitution that was written up was never implemented, and the country slid into a one-party regime characterised by a complete lack of press freedom, obligatory and indefinite military conscription, and systematic human rights abuses. The country has been termed “The North Korea of Africa” – a moniker that of course gave rise to its own satirical article on the website.

A screen grab from the paper’s website.

The paper gets its name from awaze, a hot sauce served on the side of the plate in Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisine. By choosing a quintessentially Eritrean and, equally, non-serious name, the editorial team wanted to make it clear from the outset that the publication is non-partisan.

FRANCE 24 spoke to an editor from the paper – who wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons – to ask how and why The Awaze Tribune came into being. FRANCE 24 has given them a pseudonym.

“We wanted to start telling the Eritrean story”

Issac G.

Issac G.

Basically this began as a conversation between a bunch of friends. We wanted to create something that would teach Eritreans not to consume blindly all of the information on the Internet. The Eritrean government acts like information is for the privileged few. They withhold information and in doing so are able to stay in power. For example, back in 2011, the Eritrean media never reported anything about the Arab Spring. As far as Eritreans were concerned, the Arab Spring never happened.

I believe it’s called “hypodermic needle journalism”: by selectively providing information, the government is limiting the conversation of its citizens. So we wanted to start telling the Eritrean story in a very satirical way, so people learn to read between the lines.

Eritrea was the fourth most common country of origin for refugees coming into Europe in 2015, and the second largest group coming through Italy. Screengrab from website.

“There is no such thing as media in Eritrea”

There is no such thing as media in Eritrea. There is government media and there is nothing else. The country also has a huge problem with Internet connectivity; people can’t access YouTube because of the connection speed.

Satire is something that’s very new to Eritreans, as we are finding out. We wrote a story about the first sperm bank in the Horn of Africa. The Eritrean government likes to push this idea that Eritreans are this special breed of people in the glorious struggle for independence, and so the story goes that the authorities created a sperm bank to propagate the lineage of Eritrean fighters. Some people were not happy with the article, and some people were laughing because they saw the point of it.

Death threats and secrecy

We get a lot of death threats. We’re doing something that runs counter to the Eritrean culture of dignity. The threats that we receive usually come from Eritrean government supporters; they say we’re liars, traitors to the government, we’re Communists. We read those messages, try to understand where they’re coming from. I don’t actually feel threatened. But everybody has a different way of seeing things.

The paper also has a Twitter and a Facebook account.

If my identity were to be made public… They would try and use blackmail in some way, threaten family members still living in Eritrea if you’re living outside the country, which most of us are. I think the military would try to find a way of hurting my family. Not even my family members know I’m doing this.

We do have contributors in the country, but they usually can’t join editorial discussions because their identities have to be kept secret – even from us.

It’s not heroic. This is just entertainment. Eritreans need entertainment. Every time people hear news about Eritrea, it’s bad. The Eritrean tale is a tale of struggle and pain. We just inject some comedy into it.

The Awaze Tribune does not just focus on Eritrean news, but treats global news with an African slant. Screen grab from the website.

“Satire is never created for Africa. We want to tell African jokes”

One thing we agree upon is to create a website dedicated to African readers, carrying African content that mocks African dictators – we won’t ever run out of material! Nothing like that exists. Nobody bothers to create satire for Africa, and articles about Africa are not written with Africans in mind. We want to tell African jokes. Conversations are what are needed. If people talk about what is happening around them, they might be able to come up with a solution.

Nobody funds us and we don’t want to be funded by anybody. This is a cost that we can bear ourselves. At the end of the day we do not want to be classified as a fake news website. If we start getting advertising revenue people may think we’re in it for the money. We are here to start a conversation with Eritreans about the dire situation in their country.

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