Warning shots rang in Eritrea’s capital of Asmara during a student protest against the national government; but according to BBC Tigrinya, no one was killed. Diego Solinas, Deputy Head of Mission at the Italian embassy in Eritrea, told the local BBC service no one was injured either.
However, Western media outlets began reporting casualties and people injured. Washington Post cited the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization of news that 28 people had been killed, while Al Jazeera wrote that the group’s Facebook page posted a message Wednesday mourning those lives lost: “This uprising has left 28 martyrs and 100 wounded… we call on the international community and human rights organisations to bring those involved to justice.”
They also labelled the protests as “rare” because the country has not seen demonstrations such as these since President Isaias Afwerki was elected 26 years ago, because his policies restrict citizens’ free speech.
Activists on the ground told Al Jazeera that the protests started in the predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Akhria, where the government demanded the Diaa Islamic School of Asmara to ban headscarves and to stop their Islamic-specific education.
Nasredin Ali with the Red Star Afar Democratic Organization, the opposition group based in Ethiopia, told AP that the government’s demand to end the school’s Muslim practices led to the protests. Gunfire was then reported by the U.S. Embassy “at several locations in Asmara,” but it wasn’t clear at the time why the shots were being fired.
“Following the refusal to hand over the school [to the Eritrean government], some 40 people were arrested and this led to the massive protests,” Ali told Al Jazeera. Those who were arrested involved 90-year-old chairman of the school, Hajj Musa Mohammed Nur, and other board members who refused the government’s regulation orders, as reported by BBC.
The more recent report from BBC Tigrinya specifically said the students who were arrested Tuesday have been released and the school has been reopened as security left the area. As for Nur, his whereabouts have not been identified.
Soon after, Minister of Information Yemane G. Meskel tweeted that the breaking news erupting from reports of casualties and those injured were false.
Meskel cited former BBC reporter Martin Plaut as one of the original sources who spread these false accounts. Plaut writes on his own website with a focus on news in the Horn of Africa and southern Africa, and on Tuesday, he published a security message from the U.S. State Department stating U.S. citizens should “avoid the downtown area where protests appear to be more prevalent.”
But when Johan Kruger, a visitor of the capital, uploaded pictures Wednesday, he showed that there was no civil unrest in the area where the protests were allegedly spreading to.
Semere, a contributing writer to the Eritrean news site Madote, affirmed Meskel's testament, saying the shots were fired to disperse students, not to kill them.
When asked if the videos on Twitter were showing the warning shots, Semere confirmed and said the people in Eritrea were not too disturbed during the gunfire.
According to the Madote writer, the news of casualties originated from Ethiopian journalist Elias Meseret Taye, from the AP, who lives in Addis Ababa, which is 1,673 kilometers away from the gunfire in Asmara.
Civilians tweeting from Eritrea, Biniam Tareke and freelance journalist Mella Ghebremedhin, also chimed into the conversation saying nobody suffered from Tuesday’s protests. Tareke said that the situation was contained within approximately half an hour.
Ghebremedhin reported from the ground in a blog post, saying the protests started after teenage boys had yelled “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic) while walking to the Ministry of Education. When some boys threw stones at police, the warning shots dispersed the crowd, and “the entire incident lasted several minutes, with no casualties or injuries,” reported Ghebremedhin.
How did such a discrepancy in the existence of a body count and the reportedly non-violent nature of these protests come to be? According to Tesfalem Araia, from BBC Tigrinya, a lack of multiple verified sources could have resulted from the Eritrean government allegedly shutting down the internet because of the protest.
However, multiple accounts from Eritrea have been active on Twitter since the protests and they've communally debunked Western media outlets for reporting false accounts of an internet shutdown.
Samson Berhane, who works in the Ministry of National Development in Eritrea, added on Twitter that “private clients of service providers, public instructions” alongside internet cafes have access to the internet.
Meron Estefanos, Eritrean activist and journalist based in Sweden, also had no problem contacting people in the country.
According to Eritrean citizens however, these false claims about the internet shutdown reported from the BBC and other Western outlets are not uncommon, considering President Afwerki’s government restrictions on demonstrations and on media access.
Although the government claims its citizens are treated fairly, the stronghold it has on limiting religious exercises and national protesting suggests a different narrative, one that has been twisted and turned recently.
This confusing string of events occurred due to lack of accredited sourcing on the ground. A closed region like Eritrea and other African nations have strict laws regarding freedom of speech. Threats of being thrown in jail from the national government hushes people, thus leading to minimal voices coming forward about the issue at hand, such as the protest last week with skewed coverage leading readers to believe it was violent.
When Taye, the AP writer in Ethiopia, confirmed the 28 dead and 100 injured people from sources in Eritrea, Western outlets were quick to pick up the story by an accredited journalist from a reputable international news source like AP. This bandwagon effect of reporting led to Eritrea’s rare spotlight in the news to be that of misrepresentation.
Countries like Eritrea and others in Africa are susceptible to minimal, yet sometimes distorted media coverage because of this cycle enforced by free speech being outlawed. Additionally, political bias injected into such coverage doesn’t allow for the full narrative to be told as it caters specifically to how one side will see the issue.
Civilians and journalists at the scene or connected to people in the city are able to engage in social media about these current events and provide a more comprehensive viewpoint, compiling anecdotes, pictures and videos. They get to tell the story, and more importantly, do it with more information verified by people in the city.