Undercover in Africa’s Secret State: Dispatches, review: this report on Eritrea was truly brave journalism

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Undercover in Africa’s Secret State: Dispatches - Channel 4
Undercover in Africa’s Secret State: Dispatches - Channel 4

The job of Dispatches is to shine a light on areas that some would prefer to keep hidden. Undercover in Africa’s Secret State (Channel 4) was just such a documentary, taking viewers inside Eritrea. The country is sometimes described as Africa’s North Korea. It has been ruled by one man, Isaias Afwerki, since Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1991. There are no national elections and no free press. A 2016 UN report accused Eritrean officials of committing crimes against humanity including torture, rape and murder. The Eritrean government said there was no evidence for this.

Against this backdrop, putting together an investigative documentary was a challenge. We were told that the film-makers had spent five years gathering secretly shot footage from inside the country, and interviewing people who had escaped. Two Eritreans bravely risked their lives to get the film out, and helped to make this a valuable documentary.

One was Michael, a former prisoner who had escaped and was living in a safe house in Ethiopia. Another was a prison guard. Their footage showed the terrible conditions inside Eritrea’s detention centres. Many there had committed the “crime” of trying to avoid military service. They were crammed into holding rooms where they lived and slept, and could face years with no possibility of trial. A doctor testified that, in those conditions, “some people just lose their mind. They were sane, and they lose their sanity”.

There were other testimonies, including a man who said he shared an underground cell measuring 2m wide and 1.5m high with seven other men, and where he was unable to stand. He remained there for two years and three months.

And there was Hanna, daughter of Eritrea’s former Ministry of Defence, Petros Solomon. She last saw him when she was 10, after he and a group of others had publicly criticised the president’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Her mother soon disappeared too.

“It’s a small piece of evidence. It’s like scooping water from the sea with a spoon,” Michael said of his footage, but without it we would know less about this secretive country. A disclaimer at the end said the Eritrean government denied all the allegations, and had declined to take part in the film.