A brutal dictatorship cut off from the external world and digital universe, trying to keep its population away from the Web by resorting to a variety of tactics such as technical barriers or attempts to intimidate users. In instances of social unrest, it does not hesitate to block Internet access.

Strictly controlled Internet growth

This country, which is governed with an iron fist by an uncompromising dictator, President Issaias Afeworki, is politically and virtually cut off from the rest of the world. Its independent press was wiped off the map in 2001. The state-controlled media do little more than relay the regime's ultra-nationalist ideology. The Internet is no exception: the two official websites, www.Shabait.com and www.Shaebia.com, are respectively owned by the Ministry of Information and the sole party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), disseminate only government propaganda.

The regime has proven reluctant to accept Internet growth, fearing the Web's potential for disseminating independent information. The population might benefit from too broad an access to the external world and to foreign-based opposition. In this last African country to connect to the Net, the penetration rate hovers around 3%. In other words, virtually all of the population is excluded from the digital era. The government has chosen not to increase bandwidth speed – a major technical barrier to connection.

In the last few years, the government has been waging in the traditional media – over which it has total control – an anti-Internet smear campaign. The Minister of Information has asked his henchmen to participate in television programs in which they could accuse the Internet of being devoted to pornography and to media wars, challenging the country's cultural values, and creating security problems.

Surveillance, blocking and cutting off access

The country's four service providers have obtained a licence from the Ministry of Information. They all must use the infrastructures of EriTel, which rents them its bandwidth and works in direct cooperation with the Ministries of Information and National Development. This has made network surveillance an easy task. When the regime feels threatened in periods of social unrest or during an international event that concerns it, the EriTel telecommunications firm, which owns the network's infrastructure, does not hesitate – when so ordered by Eritrean authorities – to cut off all connections to the Internet.

Although the government has not set up an automatic Internet filtering system, it nonetheless was not reluctant to order the blocking of several diaspora websites critical of the government. Access to these sites is blocked by two Internet service providers, Erson and Ewan, as are pornographic websites and even YouTube. The latter would require too much bandwidth, and the two ISPs would prefer to allocate it more efficiently and not have to argue with the government. Skype would be accessible, however. Sometimes surveillance and self-censorship suffice. The two other Internet service providers, EriTel and Tifanus, do not block opposition websites, since they know that the great majority of Eritrean surfers would never dare to openly consult them for fear of being arrested and imprisoned.

The few netizens and webmasters who are courageous enough to create or collaborate on developing an independent website are being threatened and closely monitored.

The forty-some Internet cafés, most of which are operating in Asmara, the capital, and in two or three other Eritrean cities, constitute the main access source for the Net, inasmuch as household use is very expensive and practically non-existent. These cafés are watched very closely, particularly during periods of social unrest, or when compromising news about the regime is circulating abroad. Such was notably the case when revelations were posted on diaspora websites about the President having a bank account in China.


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