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From Paris, Eritrean radio station covers boat tragedy


While most of the October 3 Lampedusa boat disaster victims were Eritreans, news of the tragedy was unlikely to reach the isolated East African nation – save for Radio Erena, a radio station broadcasting from Paris.


On October 3, as Italian fishermen off the island of Lampedusa rushed to the site of a sinking boat and began hauling survivors, a tragedy was unraveling not just in Europe, but also for a tiny East African country thousands of miles away.

But while Europeans – and the broader international community – would soon learn of the disaster, it was not clear if the residents of Eritrea would hear the news.

An impoverished, hermetically sealed nation sometimes called “Africa’s North Korea,” Eritrea has been the source of tens of thousands of migrants fleeing their country for Europe over the past two decades.

Around 1,500 Eritreans flee each month despite shoot-to-kill orders to border guards, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Not surprisingly, most of the 500 migrants on the boat which sank off the Lampedusa coast last week were Eritrean citizens. Only 155 survived.

But in a country where independent media outlets are banned and the state-owned media provides a heavily censored fare, news of the latest tragedy was unlikely to reach Eritrean shores – save for a tiny radio station, based in Paris, and broadcasting into Eritrea on shortwave in the native Tigrinya language.

Radio Erena started broadcasting on June 15, 2009, from a studio in Paris with the support of the Paris-based NGO, Reporters Without Borders. Over the years, the radio station has overcome all sorts of hurdles – including jammed satellite transmissions from within Eritrea.

When the news of the latest Lampedusa tragedy began to filter out, Radio Erena editor Biniam Simon knew it was a big story for his radio station.

“For us, it's almost a personal matter,” said Simon in an interview with the AFP. “Eritrea has a population of only five million people. The loss of 200 to 300 lives could potentially affect anyone – the victims could include neighbours, colleagues...”

According to Simon, Eritrean state media did a “shameful cover-up” of the story, by only reporting that “East African migrants” had died while “illegally trying to cross the sea”.

The official coverage, Simon noted, was designed to discourage Eritreans from fleeing.

Not that any sort of discouragement – by Eritrean or European authorities – has ever succeeded in stemming the desperate flow of asylum-seekers from Africa’s North Korea.

‘A giant prison’

Since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has not held an election or implemented its constitution.

Power in the isolated Horn of Africa nation has been concentrated in the hands of President Isaias Afewerki, a former guerrilla fighter and co-founder of the Marxist EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front).

After independence, the EPLF transformed into the PFDJ (People’s Front for Democracy and Justice), which remains the only legal political institution in the country.

But the organization has clung to its Marxist revolutionary policies, including a mandatory national service, which is officially limited to 18 months but in reality can extend indefinitely – sometimes to 40 or 50 years working as conscripted labourers in state-run enterprises.

National conscripts are poorly paid and fed and receive inadequate medical care, leading Human Rights Watch to describe Eritrea as “a giant prison” where torture, arbitrary detentions and restrictions on the freedom of expression are rampant.

In such a repressive environment, news media run by the Eritrean diaspora, such as Radio Erena, can play a critical role.

‘Asylum-seekers’, not ‘illegal immigrants’

In the aftermath of the October 3 disaster, the radio station broadcast intensive coverage of the tragedy including testimonies of survivors and prayers by priests in the diaspora community.

Simon is not sure how many people inside Eritrea his radio broadcasts have reached – in an isolated Marxist state that denies access to international monitoring teams, such figures are hard to come by.

But regardless of Radio Erena’s audience figures, Simon knows his coverage is hardly likely to stop his countrymen from putting their lives at risk in the hope of somehow themselves securing a better future.

In his interview with the AFP, Simon was also critical of international news media, which describe migrants from Eritrea as “illegal immigrants” and not “asylum-seekers” fleeing persecution at home.

But if many of Africa’s desperate, huddled masses have long viewed the West as indifferent to their plights, the sheer scale of the October 3 disaster has reopened a discourse among EU member states about addressing the pressing issue lapping at Europe’s southern shores.

‘Coffins of babies, coffins of a mother and a child…’

On Wednesday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso pledged 30 million euros in EU funds to help refugees in Italy.

Barroso made the announcement during a joint visit with Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta to Lampedusa, where the two men were heckled upon their arrival with shouts of “disgrace” and “killers”.

Speaking at a joint news conference, Barroso expressed profound shock and sorrow over the tragedy.

“That image of hundreds of coffins will never get out of my mind,” said Barroso. "It's something, I think, one cannot forget: coffins of babies, coffins of a mother and a child that was born just at that moment. This is something that profoundly shocked me."

Most Eritrean asylum-seekers make a perilous overland journey through Sudan and into Libya, where they are at the mercy of often ruthless people smugglers who are normally paid upfront and have scant interest in ensuring the passengers safely make it to European shores.

These are harrowing tales of migration that are not likely to ebb in the near future. For Radio Erena, they are stories that have to be relayed across the seas, into a troubled homeland.


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