The city of Reykjavik recently welcomed it’s fourth ICORN resident, the Eritrean journalist and human rights advocate Samson Habte. Habte’s work and activism focuses on the rights of Eritrean refugees and initiatives that strengthen and widen the freedom of expression and access of information for Eritreans both inside and outside the country. He is a co-founder of Africa Monitors, an Eritrean human rights NGO based in Uganda, and serves as the news department head for ERISAT, a newly launched Eritrean news outlet run by volunteer journalists and scholars in exile. Since 2017, he has been the media liaison officer for The Migration Project at SEEFAR, where, among other things, he is involved in content creation for TV, radio and social media.
His two-year residency is supported by Iceland’s Department of Culture and Tourism and the Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature that have partnered together to provide Habte with cultural and artistic support and to facilitate his networking with the community of writers in Reykjavík.
“The City of Reykjavík's Human Rights Policy is based on the human rights provisions of the Icelandic Constitution and international conventions. The City is committed to leading the way in human rights issues. By offering shelter to writers and artists at risk through ICORN the City of Reykjavík aims to support freedom of expression and democratic values.”
Eritrea: A Country without any Independent Media or Internet
Eritrea is an authoritarian state that is regarded as one of the most oppressive countries in the world. In the 2021 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, Eritrea was placed in the 180th and last position, remarking the lack of “freely reported news and information” since 2001 when the government shut down all independent media outlets. All journalists work for the Ministry of Information and all programming is strictly determined and monitored by the government. After graduating with a degree in political science, Habte was assigned to work in the Ministry of Information by the government (graduates have no say in the jobs they are chosen for) where he served as a news writer and analyst. He witnessed first-hand how all news content was funneled and needed to be approved by the Minister of Information himself.
Freedom of expression is severely inhibited by fear of government informants and the frequent arbitrary detention and torture of dissenting voices. Internet access is very slow and limited to only a handful of internet cafes where users are monitored by security agents Although members of the Eritrean diaspora are outspoken, they are also wary of government surveillance and harassment.
Advocating for the Rights of Eritrean Refugees
After a failed coup in 2013 that led him to be imprisoned and having his life under threat, Habte was forced to flee Eritrea. He fled to Sudan and then Ethiopia, but was followed and stopped. Finally, three months after leaving his country, he arrived in Kampala, Uganda where he would settle for the following eight years.
Based on his experience as a refugee and seeing the daily struggles of Eritrean refugees confined to camps, Habte decided there was an acute need for wider world recognition of the challenges Eritrean refugees face. In 2013, Habte and colleagues initiated Eritrea Radio Forum, where he took on the role of news writer until 2016. In 2014, he co-founded the NGO Africa Monitors as a way to highlight and advocate for the rights of Eritrean refugees in Uganda, as well as Libya, Uganda, Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia. He serves as media officer, news writer, and podcaster for the NGO’s website. Working closely with other national and international partners, Africa Monitors has had a big impact on the assessment of the situation of refugees and migrants, especially women.
An Exiled Journalist at the Forefront of the Fight for Free Expression and Access to Information
“The situation in Eritrea is like science fiction. Many would not believe you when you share the dreadful things every Eritrean experiences back home. But one day, things will change up there, and I, for sure, will be one of the first ones to go back. That is what I’m trying to do, try to make things change as soon as possible.” Samson Habte
During his entire career outside of Eritrea, Habte has supported initiatives responding to the most acute needs of the Eritrean people - both inside and outside of the country. Lack of information makes it impossible for either of these two groups to create solidarity movements and educate themselves against the repressive strategies of the Eritrean government. In order to address this, Habte alongside a group of volunteer journalists and scholars in exile founded the first of its kind Eritrean Satellite Television (ERISAT) in 2019. The entirely volunteer-run independent news outlet runs over 15 different programmes in four different languages (Tigrinya, Arabic, Afar and Bilen) and is planning to begin streaming in English soon. Habte serves as the news department head for ERISAT where he spearheads the daily news, commentaries, analysis and documentary content.
ERISAT’s platform is impressive in the breadth of its scope. Programmes include ones dedicated to children’s education, human rights, current affairs, and tech and science. The programme for children called Erikids seeks to ambitiously tackle the lack of access to education many Eritrean children face by enlisting 60 volunteer teachers to create courses that are shared online. Seeking to foster a wider debate among the Eritrean community, ERISAT’s current affairs programme invited scholars, academics and diplomats to speak and be heard. Despite an array of informative and entertaining content, the outlet keeps at its core an acknowledgement of both past and future challenges for the fight of free expression. It offers a stark reminder with a programme that is dedicated each day to one disappeared or dead Eritrean, a testimony to the power of memory and of the collective fight for human rights.
Before Habte, the city of Reykjavik hosted three writers within the ICORN programme, including: Mazen Maarouf (Palestine), Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo (Cuba), and Naila Zahin Ana (Bangladesh).