Hate speech and threats at the core of Eritrean ‘festivals’ in Germany and Switzerland
In the last month, the long arm of the Eritrean regime has organised a series of ‘festivals’ and ‘seminars’ promoted as cultural events. On the basis of previous events that have been organised many perceive that the events promote hate speech and incite violence. They have fuelled pushback in the form of protests, legal action and letters from Eritreans in the diaspora and allies opposing the violent message of the Eritrean regime. A new festival was organised in secrecy in Switzerland last weekend, 27 August 2022, and another event was announced in Germany on 3 September – of which the cancellation was announced yesterday, 31 August.
The festivals are organised by representatives (including embassies) of the ruling and only party in Eritrea, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), and its youth-wing, YPFDJ. It is the political organisation that controls Eritrea and has a granular presence abroad to control the Eritrean diaspora. It is referred to as HEGDEF or HGDEF by members of the Eritrean diaspora, or Shabia, mostly used to refer to its presence in Eritrea.
The tour of festivals comes as the Tigray region of Ethiopia has been under siege for 22 months. Eritrea is seen as an important actor in the conflict. This causes additional tensions around these events, including in the Tigray diaspora.
Hate speech and violent symbolism
Central to the tour of events organised by the PFDJ is Awel Seid, presented as a songwriter and poet. In his videos and texts, diasporas from Eritrea and Tigray indicate that he glorifies war and violence, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He praises the Eritrean military, shows graphic images of civilian killings [4.50 minute mark] and dehumanises Tigrayans, endorsing Eritrea’s invasion of Tigray. These examples are experienced as hate speech.
On a festival held in Switzerland on 23 July 2022, men can be seen dancing in the audience and on stage in military outfits, holding Kalashnikovs [for example around the 3:11:45 mark]. In addition, the video shows that money is collected during the festival. According to Eritrean regime-controlled media Shabait, the festival also included some words from officials: “Ms. Asmeret Abraha [Governor of the Northern Red Sea Region] also gave extensive briefing on the objective situation in the homeland, future programs as well as regional developments.” In addition, Adm Osman, Charge d’Affairs at the Eritrean Embassy in Switzerland, led the festival. The men holding – if not real then very realistic – Kalashnikovs was of no apparent concern to the Charge d’Affairs nor others, including the very present security.
Push-backs from diaspora, human rights activists and allies
For the persons that fled from Eritrea’s military service and the repressions of the regime, the festivals are seen as propaganda events and are a symbol of the continuation of the repression they fled from. Pushback against the festivals has been accompanied by direct threats of regime supports to protesters and other experts and activists coming to their support. This includes threats to family members back home in Eritrea.
Letters warning of the danger
A letter by a concerned group of experts outlined that the festival announced in Germany on 20 August is directly tied to repression faced by Eritrean refugees that have fled the country. Furthermore, warn the experts, the funds collected in the festivals and others like it may well go on to fund the Eritrean military invasion of Tigray.
The Eritrean diaspora petitioned the court to stop the festival organised in Germany on 20 August 2022. The German court, however, allowed the event to continue on the basis of protecting freedom of expression. Thus, a protest was organised at the event – which turned violent. Finally, the event was called off by the police in light of the danger of further escalation. Although a new festival was announced for 3 September, this was also cancelled just a few days before it was set to take place.
In Switzerland, the Eritrean diaspora peacefully protested a festival announced to take place on 27 August 2022. The protests were accompanied by petitions and a letter that organised peaceful protests and solidarity. The peaceful protests took place across several cities, as the location of the venue of the event was kept secret. Buses were organised to take those registered by phone to an undisclosed location. Neither Swiss authorities nor the diaspora knew where it took place – if it took place at all.
Festivals and seminars cancelled
Before the cancellation of the event in Germany on 27 August due to violence, other countries have cancelled the festivals before they took place. The municipality of Rijswijk in the Netherlands decided to cancel the event as they had not asked for permission. The municipality, in deliberation with the police, also found that the appropriate safety measures had not been taken. The festival was moved last-minute to Beverwijk, another municipality in the Netherlands, but the municipality was granted an emergency ordinance to stop it.
An event set for 3 September 2022 in Norway was also cancelled. Authorities in Norway are investigating people that participate in these festivals. 150 Eritrean refugees that attended a similar festival celebrating the Eritrean national service in August 2019 were investigated. This resulted in the withdrawal of 13 residence permits.
Another event planned in the UK on 4 September was also cancelled.
Experts indicate that the festivals link to the widespread Eritrean diaspora’s wish to celebrate their culture, music and community. However, in doing so, the festivals also serve as a tool for the Eritrean regime to establish itself financially, organise propaganda and promote perceived hate speech against Eritrean opposition and Tigrayans, they indicated. This is at the core of the pushback against such events.