An ongoing controversy involving the Eritrean Community Radio program on KFAI, which airs on Sunday afternoons, continues to divide the Twin Cities Eritrean community, with no resolution in sight. The program, which started in the 1990s, is hosted by Essey Asbu, a board member of the Eritrean Community Center, based in St. Paul. Another group, the Eritrean Forum of Minnesota, claims the KFAI program takes a pro-Eritrean government stance, and wants an alternative point of view to be heard.
Over the last couple of years, a number of contentious meetings have been held at KFAI, with Eritrean Forum members demanding time on the program, while many of the program’s listeners (and KFAI contributors) object to the Forum’s point of view.
Eritrean Forum position
Steve Paulos, a member of the Eritrean Forum of Minnesota, moved to the United States in 1974, when Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia. “We’re only asking to have constitutional country,” he said.
Paulos said the KFAI program follows only government-run news. “It’s transmit directly from Eritrea,” Paulos said. “He gives news from one station. We object to that.”
Paulos said the KFAI Eritrean community radio program was “given to everybody to serve the people living here. Unfortunately, it’s been taken over by pro-government people.”
Once a colony of Italy, Eritrea was occupied by the British during Word War II and then given autonomy by the United Nations in 1952, only to be annexed by Ethiopia 10 years later, according to the country’s BBC profile. After thirty years of struggle, Eritrea won its independence in 1991, officially voting for its independence in 1993. Then in 1998-2000, they engaged with another war with Ethiopia over disputes about it borders. The border issues persist to this day.
There has not been a presidential election in Eritrea since the current president came to power in 1993. There is also no independent media, and Amnesty International and other human rights groups have outlined certain human rights abuses in the country. Eritrea has been sanctioned by the United Nations, and about five years ago closed its major university, which has since re-opened without accreditation. According to the United Nations, 4,000 Eritreans, including unaccompanied minors, flee the country every month.
According to Mugaleto Baka, another Forum member, one result from their meetings with KFAI last year was the advice that someone from the Eritrean Forum take volunteer training and begin volunteering with the station. Baka took part in the training program, with the hope that afterwards their group would be able to air their viewpoint. “We were understanding that the hour would be divided in two,” he said.
At first, Baka said, Vargas told him that he would have to submit a copy of whatever announcement the Forum wanted aired. Then, he was told that it was up to Asbu whether to air it or not.
“We’ve been trying to remain neutral on the subject,” said Vargas. “Our programmer is not required to address a U.S. travel warning.”
Essey Asbu’s position
Essey Asbu began volunteering for the program to help a friend in 1998, and 1999 joined as a host of the program, eventually to host by himself, he said.
The basic goal of the Eritrean Community Radio program, Asbu said, is to bring news about Eritrea. Back in the late 1990s, when Eritrea was at war with Ethiopia, “a lot of people didn’t have access to the internet,” he said. Any information people received was through VHS tape, which was often months old. Throughout the years, the program has also incorporated some cultural news as well.
“We can build a bridge between people here and people at home,” he said.
According to Asbu, each program has about 20 minutes of news in the Tigrigna language, with English portions as well.
According to Asbu, Eritrea, as a third world country, has been devastated by war, with entire cities erased. In one of the Northern Cities, only one mosque remained after the war, because, he said, the Ethiopians left it standing so they could find the city.
Since the wars, Eritrea is basically “starting from scratch,” he said. “We were bombed to the stone ages.” The country has few amenities, but the people “pride ourselves in the peace in our country. No one carries guns.”
But Forum members disagree with that assertion. According to Negassi Habtemaryam, who came to the United States in 2004, after leaving Eritrea in 2001, Eritrea is a very unsafe place. “Everyone has a gun,” he said. And citizens must request permission to move from one place to another.
Recent controversy over call-in
More recent controversy has erupted over Asbu’s refusal to air a travel warning from the U.S. State Department that explained current conditions that can be faced while traveling to Eritrea. Then, on June 9, Forum member Habtemaryam called in to the program to talk about the 22 years since Eritrean independence. Forum members claim Asbu didn’t allow Habtemaryam to speak, and was generally rude to him.
Habtemaryam’s call on the program this past spring isn’t the first time he’s appeared on the show, Asbu said, and his appearances are always controversial. Many Eritreans here in Minnesota, he said, don’t like to “let the dirty laundry out. It’s hard to have an open discussion about anything.”
“Every time I have a call-in program, people get disgruntled,” Asbu said, and no one has called more than Habtemaryam. On the Eritrean Independence Day, Habtemaryam called in, and wanted to discuss the 22 years of independence.
Habtemaryam also wanted Asbu to issue a travel warning, saying that there’s trouble for Americans going to Eritrea. The announcement described how if people travel, they must have their passports with them at all times.
On the June 9 show, Habtemaryam said that Asbu wouldn’t allow him to finish talking, and began attacking him. One of their disagreements was about whether there was a university in Eritrea.
Another was Habtemaryam’s contention that 4,000 people flee Eritrea every month, which was reported by the United Nations.
After the interview was finished, Habtemaryam said that Asbu “undermined him” in the media, saying he was stupid and other insults, and attacked him more the following week.
Asbu said he challenged Negassi Habtermaryam, saying he had to back it up with facts. “I have to be able to ask questions,” said Asbu.
According to Asbu, Habtemaryam said Eritrea’s independence has been hijacked. Asbu, in turn, wanted to point out improvements in education and health care since the country’s devestation during the Ethiopian war.
According to Asbu, one university was closed in the mid-1990s because “it was not serving its intended purposes.” He said it has been since reassigned to take in law and medical school. He also said there are seven new colleges since 2000, offering studies in agriculture, sciences, social sciences, etc.
The Eritrean Forum “say I’m an apologist for the government,” he said, but he denies that. He does oppose the sanctions imposed by the United Nations on Eritrea due to their devastating effect. He also takes issue with claims that Eritrea violates human rights.
Asbu acknowledges that young people are fleeing the country, but he says the main reason is economics, and the bad living conditions of Eritrea. Even top ministers abandon their work and go to other countries, in order to pay for their families, Asbu said.
Asbu also acknowledges that there is no independent media in Eritrea, but he says the reason is because in 1995-2000, media was thriving in the country, and there was controversy about media funded by the United States, and so it was forbidden.
The country has had Internet since 2000, but the speed has been very bad. Cell phones became available in 2007. “There is progress,” he said. “Sometimes the very people advocating for change become the biggest stumbling block,” he said.
In 2008, Eritrea kicked out the NGOs, because food aid “has to be self limiting,” Asbu said. “If it doesn’t have an end line, it’s just money for the NGOS. 80 billion dollars go for NGOs every year.”
Eritrea gave up a lot of the aid, and it was a difficult moment, but by 2010, they were feeding the people, he said.
The main stumbling block for peace, Asbu said, is the continuing border dispute. “Ethiopia should pull out,” he said, so that the 350,000 soldiers that are waiting at the border can go home.
Asbu said he gets attacked on both ends, with some from the community saying he’s too liberal, and other saying he’s pro-government. “I’m not going to go out of my way to talk about our great president is. At the same time- I won’t say he’s a thief,” he said.
Asbu said he likes to focus the conversation during call-in sessions. Habtemaryam is one of the few people that is willing to put his name out. Others- no matter what their political views, shy away from speaking out.
Last year, former KFAI Executive Director Janis Lane-Ewart agreed to allow the Forum members to contribute announcements and news items to be aired as part of the program.
Notes from the board packet on April 16, 2012, indicate that Lane-Ewart and News Director Dale Connelly met the Eritrean Community Radio host and community members. At that time, Lane-Ewart said, “The programmer is expected to present public announcements as provided to him, and that translation of the program by two impartial translators will begin after pledge drive,” according to the board packet. “These translations are intended to determine if the program is fair, unbiased and representing the views of all Eritreans in the Twin Cities.”
According to KFAI Programming Director Miguel Vargas, the programmer does air announcements if they are not too long. “There are times where some things can be aired like events and announcements,” he said, but often Eritrean Forum members submit “long, opinionated pieces they would like recorded and placed on the show.”
When asked about translations for the portions of the show that are not in English, Vargas said that KFAI doesn’t have translations.
Last August, the Eritrean Forum submitted an announcement that referenced human rights violations by the Eritrean government.
“Management thought it was lengthy,” Vargas said. “It was very political.” Vargas asked the Forum members to make the comment shorter, and he said they got upset, and felt it was censorship. They went to the Board of Directors, who in turn requested that the programming committee investigate the issue.
A meeting in October 2012 “got out of hand,” according to Vargas, and there was no amicable resolution.
KFAI’s programming committee then decided to give Vargas authority to nix any announcements that he doesn’t deem suitable, he said.
“What KFAI has tried to do is stay outside out of the political part of it,” said Vargas.
Asbu is a board member of the Eritrean Community Center of Minnesota, which holds events at a space on University of Minnesota, According to Vargas, members of the ECC have been very supportive of the radio program. “He has a supportive listening audience out there,” he said, which also includes pledge money.
Those listeners associated with the ECC call in to complain when the radio program airs announcements from Eritrean Forum, or when guests such as Habtemaryam call into the program.
“It’s not an easy thing,” said Vargas. “That’s when we realized- we need to stay neutral. We need to give better guidelines about getting messages through.”
“Essey has every right as an programmer to set an agenda. It’s really on the guest to be cooperative with that.”
One alternative that Vargas has suggested to the forum group is to do their own web programming, which could be presented on KFAI’s web page, but so far, they have declined.
Thoughts from others in the community
Marta Merzi, a young Minnesotan of Eritrean ancestry, said she’s a supporter of people having their own opinions, but she said that the members of the Eritrean Forum aren’t giving facts. “It’s more venting,” she said.
One of her main issues was with Habtemaryam’s claims that there are no schools, or food in Eritrea. According to Merzi, Asmara University, which was shut down in the aftermath of the war, has re-opened, and there is also Orotta School of Medicine as well a new institute called “The Confucius Institute.”
Merzi said she’s a skeptic of all news. Eritrea, she said, is not looked upon very highly in Western news sources. She questions some negative allegations about the Eritrean government; such as the coup that she says was not really a coup.
Amnesty International, which claims human rights abuses by Eritrea, she said, is using the claims as a political tactic to “dethrone the ‘other’” she said. “There are plenty of human rights issues around the world that Amnesty International has not spoken on.”
Merzi visited Eritrea in 2002, when she was 17. Although she was not fluent in the language, she said she felt empowered to see so many people with brown skin who looked like her, and people in the government that looked like her as well. There was religious diversity, she said, which she found powerful.
Merzi enoucrages people not to trust government sponsored news either. “Use your own reasoning,” she said. “There are many sources of information. Be fair.”
Rahwa Tesfe, a member of the Eritrean Forum of Minnesota, left Eritrea when she was eight years old, in 1989. She’s been in the United States since 1993.
When Eritrea first gained independence, Tesfe said, “everybody was happy. We are one now, we are united.” Some people living in the United States moved back. But in 1998, the Border War started with Ethiopia, and people started dividing.
Now, Tesfe said, people are aware of what’ happening to their brothers and sisters in Eritrea, but they “can’t talk out loud, they can’t voice their opinion.”
People who want to go back to Eritrea are especially fearful, she said, because if the government finds out they were speaking out, they will go to prison.
Tesfe said the Eritrean community radio program should serve all Eritreans. She’s been involved in writing leaders and speaking with staff at KFAI about what they can do.
CORRECTIONS: Changed “aren’t given facts” to “aren’t giving facts.”
Clarified: full name is Negassi Habtermaryam.
July 29: Marta Merzi is a young Minnesotan of Eritrean ancestry.
Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.