New Internationalist

Eritrean disapora dials freedom with ‘robocall’

July 2013

Rizwan Syed reports on how the mass automated calls that marketeers use to torment us are put to good use - sending messages of solidarity.

An item from the Agenda section of the magazine, where we look beyond the news curve with reports and comment on breaking stories.

Global diaspora group Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change (EYSC) is finding new ways to call for democracy and bypass the government’s strict censorship regime.

One of its information tools goes by the name of ‘robocall’. A technique loved by telemarketers, robocall allows the dissidents to record anti-government messages, which are then auto-dialled by a private company to thousands of phones in Eritrea.

EYSC’s ‘Freedom Friday’ chapter programmed a robocall to 10,000 homes five days before Eritrea’s Independence Day in May 2012. The message called on people to stage an act of peaceful defiance by staying at home.

Since winning independence from Ethiopia in 1993, single-party state Eritrea has developed a reputation as one of the most repressive regimes on earth. Earlier this year, Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranked it bottom out of 179 countries on freedom of expression.

EYSC has also set up a radio station to broadcast opposition opinion on the Eritrean airwaves. Based in Europe, the shortwave transmitter’s exact location is kept secret to minimize the risk of government jamming. Drama and news are among the radio shows, which are paid for by fundraising through Facebook and donations from the group’s local chapters.

EYSC members also take to the streets. They have demonstrated for the end of dictatorship in front of Eritrean embassies and held ‘quiet’ protests outside Eritrean churches in London.

Harnet Bokrezion, chair of EYSC, says robocalls are a powerful campaign tool. ‘It’s a way to support and motivate our people inside Eritrea – to help them lose their fear – as well as to demonstrate defiance by breaking authoritarian rules,’ she said.

But these activists know what they are up against. After the May robocall, no-one called back.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 464 This feature was published in the July 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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