When sound is mightier than the sword

Biniam Simon is a softly spoken man, but his voice aims to bring down a dictatorship.

Biniam Simon

Broadcasting from an independent radio station in a quiet Parisian side street, Simon is a 43-year-old journalist in exile, a refugee of the east African country you’ve never heard of, don’t care about, but probably should: Eritrea.

Elections are repeatedly postponed, torture is widespread and Amnesty International believes at least 10,000 political prisoners have been locked up. The country’s press freedom ranking, 180th out of 180, puts it behind North Korea.

In 2006, Simon, formerly a TV anchor on Eritrean state television, fled with the help of Reporters Without Borders, coming to France and setting up Radio ‘Erena’ (‘Our Eritrea’). He produces two hours of journalism each day, beamed by satellite back to the Horn of Africa.

With a population of just over 6 million and surrounded by Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti, Eritrea has been ruled by the same president, Isaias Afwerki, since independence in 1993. Afwerki victoriously led the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front in an armed struggle against the occupying Ethiopians and has ruled with an iron fist ever since.

The situation is so bad that Eritreans, hit also by recent famine and conflicts with Yemen and the old adversary Ethiopia, are reportedly among the most numerous in attempting the risky crossing from North Africa to Europe by boat.

‘Things were terribly bad in the Ministry of Information,’ Biniam says, blowing cigarette smoke into the warm spring breeze as he remembers his escape. He is short, with dark brown eyes and a goatee beard that he touches thoughtfully before answering. ‘In my section, almost everyone was taken to prison. I was in Japan on a training course and my colleagues sent me a coded email, so I decided not to go back.’

Simon had fallen out with his superiors over allegedly losing an interview he had recorded with the dictator. But it was a set up. ‘Five or six people had seen me give my boss the tape. Sometimes they want to make an example of you, so I was a target.’

After appealing for help, he was met in the departure lounge at Tokyo airport by Michel, the local Reporters Without Borders correspondent. Evading his escort, Biniam was bundled into a car and sped away from the airport, changing vehicles regularly in case they were being followed. Simon then hid out in Michel’s apartment for several weeks before being granted asylum in France.

Leonard Vincent, author of ‘The Eritreans’ and the man who lobbied the French government to get Simon’s visa, says it was a veritable ‘kidnapping’.

In Paris, Simon quickly worked to raise money for a station, successfully applying for grants from NGOs and international organisations like the European Union. Radio France also stepped in to offer technical support. There was no question of him doing anything but continue to be a reporter.

‘Without independent media, the country’s in blackout,’ he says. ‘I want to do my part. I’ve been a journalist since 1992. That’s my life. It’s what I love to do. Communicating with my people is part of my life. I had to continue that but in a different way. The importance of it is unquestionable.’

Biniam liaises with a network of refugee correspondents across the world and sources inside Eritrea. He also runs an answering machine that people in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, call from public telephone boxes, and he uses their personal testimonies in his reports.

But for those in his home country sending him information, the dangers are enormous: 16 journalists are still believed to be locked up in Eritrea, all of them Biniam’s friends. Arrests are arbitrary and due process non-existent.

‘When you go to prison in Eritrea,’ he says, ‘they want you to say ‘Sorry for doing this’, but nobody tells you what ‘this’ is, and why you’re here. You don’t know what you’ve done, so you just stay there.’

Given such dangers, communication has to be discreet and Yahoo’s instant messaging service is their journalistic weapon of choice.

‘Everything is in a coded message,’ Biniam reveals, choosing his words carefully. ‘And it’s different from one correspondent to another. I can give you this example because he’s already out. Like when you say it’s a ‘vacation’, it means it’s a prison. Simple things like that. That code has now expired. When you say a ‘garage’, it means he’s close to the border. Taking the situation in its context, it’s all we can do.’

But Simon doesn’t just expose the truth about his home country, where things are going ‘terribly, both politically and economically’. He’s also educating his fellow countrymen about the foundations of a free society.

‘You have to realise this is the first independent radio in the history of Eritrea,’ Biniam says, nodding at his surrounding computer monitors and sound decks. ‘So you have to build things. Right now we have a programme explaining basic human rights. And even political things, like “What’s democracy ? What’s the best formula for a democracy to follow ?” It’s like saying to the people “These are your options. This is what you have.”’

And he’s seeing progress. Simon says Radio Erena’s first aim was to make Eritreans believe in the possibility of an independent media, and then feel free to discuss what they heard with their friends, colleagues and family members.

‘This we’ve achieved,’ he says. ‘At the beginning, people went to prison for listening to the radio. Now everybody listens, everybody talks about it. There are too many people listening, they can’t lock everybody up.’

It’s the next step that’s so difficult. The brave, dangerous step of liberation. One day Simon hopes to return to a free Eritrea and be re-united with his family. He has no partner nor kids, but he misses his parents, his brothers and his sisters. ‘I’m in the most beautiful country in the world,’ he says, looking out onto the street below. ‘But home is home. I miss everything. It’s where I belong.’

Is returning soon a likely possibility? Simon laughs ruefully. ‘What my people do with what they’ve heard is up to them, not up to me.’

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