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Freedom, a Call Away?
Control on Cell Phone Use in Eritrea Is Called Tool of Repression

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 20, 2004; Page A13

KEREN, Eritrea -- The bowls of spaghetti, topped with red meat sauce, were hot. The customers were hungry, diving in with fork in one hand, spoon in the other. The chrome-plated cappuccino maker hissed. Outside on porches, students and graying men in frayed three-piece suits and oversize black-rimmed glasses sipped inky espressos from tiny white cups.

Missing from the country's cafe culture is one major modern convenience -- cell phones. And that's not something young Eritreans find charming or even fair.

Eritrea is the only country in Africa where the chirping phone has not become a staple of urban life. The government opened the application process for the country's first cell phones three weeks ago, but the notice indicated that only government ministers, diplomats and selected humanitarian organizations would be considered.

Critics say that keeping mobile phones from the public is a symptom of the increase in repression since Eritrea's 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia. Citing a renewed threat of war, the government has denied exit visas to citizens under 30, extended national military and public service from 18 months to an open-ended period for young people, jailed political critics and shut down the free press.

"We are cut off from the world," said Yadit, 24, sitting in a cafe in this city about 50 miles northwest of the capital, Asmara. He asked that his last name not be published because the government often arrests its critics. "No one is getting these mobiles through the permit process. It's really depressing."

In many places in Africa, where scratchy land lines function sporadically, cell phones have become not just a standard amenity but an indispensable tool of freedom, democracy and safety in war. In northeastern Congo, residents pooled cash to buy cell phones, which they used to notify relatives when rebels were on the move.

In Kenya, the phones have been credited with aiding democracy. Polling-place workers in December 2002 elections armed with mobile phones quickly called in results to the news media and to election headquarters, making vote-rigging difficult.

"The significance of the mobile handset as a political tool lies in the fact that Africa today has more mobile subscribers than the number of connected fixed lines," said Christopher Wambua, public and media liaison for the Communications Commission of Kenya, a nongovernmental group. "It's revolutionary for democracy because it gives people real connections with the outside world."

In Kenya, the number of mobile subscribers stands at more than 2 million, compared with 340,000 fixed-line subscribers, according to the commission. It said Uganda has more than 500,000 mobile subscribers and 60,000 fixed lines. In Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with 133 million people, cell phones outnumber land lines three to one, according to the cell phone company MTN.

But in the former Italian colony of Eritrea -- a country of just 4 million on the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa -- what technology has wrought is a new arena for the old struggle between liberty and government control.

"The Eritrean government is extremely repressive and goes to extraordinary lengths to prevent access to information," said Jemera Rone, a researcher in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. The licensing of cell phones "is just the latest example."

"So you want a mobile phone?" Emmanuel Hagdo, a public relations officer in the Information Ministry, whispered into his land-line receiver. He was speaking to a British citizen who was pleading for a permit.

"Do you have a resident permit?" Hagdo asked. "Photographs? A copy of your address and your lease? And you need this for what? Work? Yes. Okay. It shouldn't be a problem."

He hung up and then said, "We don't really need these phones. Who wants them? When I am home, I just want to relax. These phones will cause people to bother you."

But members of the country's increasingly frustrated younger generation don't see it that way. In Asmara, a discernible anxiety hangs over many cafes, which were once places where politics was discussed freely and three independent newspapers were read over coffee.

It is in cafes that the growing generational divide is most clear. Older people are reluctant to question President Issaias Afwerki, a heroic figure during the 30-year struggle with Ethiopia for Eritrean independence, whom they call the George Washington of Eritrea. They say younger people are spoiled and have no business complaining about national service after their elders fought so hard for independence. But the young say they want cell phones, the Internet, jobs and a future where they won't have to serve endless years in the military.

"I can't wait to . . . get away," said Theodoros, 23, a math student who insisted on speaking from his darkened car. "There are no freedoms here. We don't even have mobiles. Even Congo has cell phones. Sometimes, I feel like I hate this country. It's not that I really hate it, but there are no opportunities here. If you want to do anything other than be a soldier, you have to leave."

In recent months, the U.N. peacekeeping mission that guards the unmarked border between Ethiopia and Eritrea has reported that Eritreans have been sneaking into Ethiopia to avoid extended national service. There have also been reports of young people fleeing to Sudan to the west in trucks.

"We are tired of hearing about their struggle. All of those dreams are gone now and it's a dictatorship here. We have no freedom to enjoy our country that everyone fought so hard for," said Dessaze, a 27-year-old soldier who asked that his last name not be used because he feared arrest. "They don't want us to have cell phones, because they are scared of what we will say."

In the struggle for independence, Eritreans were ultimately victorious against a far more powerful foe. Ethiopia was backed at first by the United States and then by the Soviet Union. The Eritrean People's Liberation Front, backed by no superpower, preached social as well as political revolution. Fighters were taught to read and write and to study philosophy and science, and female fighters were given equal rights.

After independence in 1993, Eritrea became the great hope of the continent, with its still-spotless, crime-free streets, progressive constitution, largely corruption-free government and a highly regarded fighter-turned-president. But Issaias has since outlawed opposition parties, and the one-party state has become increasingly sensitive about public scrutiny.

Eleven senior government officials and former revolutionary leaders were arrested in September 2001 after publishing an open letter to Issaias requesting democratic reforms. The G-11, as they are known, are still in prison and have never been tried, human rights observers said. Later that September, two Eritreans who worked for the U.S. Embassy were arrested. No charges have been filed despite a State Department demand for a trial.

Eritreans overseas have posted Web sites questioning the government and voicing concern about the loss of freedom. "Eritreans feel their country is the most isolated nation in the world today," says the Web site of the Concerned Eritreans of Washington, D.C.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said Eritrea was Africa's leading jailer of journalists; more than 17 local journalists have disappeared there. Only one television and radio station still operates, and it is owned by the government.

Human rights groups say the government is using the threat of another war with Ethiopia as an excuse for the restrictions and the failure to hold presidential elections, scheduled three years ago. Tensions remain high. Ethiopia pulled out of an international agreement to demarcate the border, and the talks are deadlocked.

The Eritrean government has said it is frustrated by the lack of international pressure on Ethiopia, a country far larger and with more political clout. So Eritrea remains mobilized for war. Unrestricted use of cell phones, government officials said, could lead to espionage and treason.

"We have a history where the international community has rode roughshod over Eritrea and we were denied nationhood," Yemane Gebremeskel, director of the president's office, said in an interview. "For any nation, a psychology of peace is different from a psychology of war. We can't have elections when we are in a no-war, no-peace situation. We can't allow young people to leave the country when we don't know if there will be war. Anyone we have detained or any freedoms that are restricted are to protect the sovereignty of the nation."

Many Eritreans have relatives in Ethiopia whom they haven't spoken to in decades. So when the government announced about three months ago that cell phones were coming, Eritreans hoped they would be able to use them to call Ethiopia. A month later, the government announced the permit process and the restrictions. Ethiopia would be blocked.

In Asmara's new cell phone store, young people peered into a window, lamented the government regulations and then walked off. Across the street at the telecommunications office, citizens lined up to make phone calls in booths. But nothing was going through. The land lines were down.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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