For nearly 10 consecutive years, media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders has ranked Eritrea at the bottom of its annual index on press freedom. This year, it rose by one place above North Korea.

After a 30-year war of independence with Ethiopia, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who has now been in power for 26 years, chose not to hold elections but keep the country on a war footing. In 2001, he shut down all privately owned news outlets and began expelling foreign correspondents until none were left in the country.

All that remained was state media, news outlets that toe the government line.

"So there is only one government newspaper, one TV station, one radio station all run by the state," says Abraham Zere, executive director of PEN Eritrea. "The media basically portrays the country as if it's progressing, whereas everybody knows that the country is regressing again."

With only state media operating on the inside, Eritreans rely on news outlets based outside the country.

Radio Erena is perhaps the most prominent. Based in France, the channel beams into the country via satellite and provides one of the only sources of information in Eritrea that are not state-controlled. 

It was set up in 2009 by a group of exiled journalists who used to work for state media. Now, from the safety of France, they can report on issues like the constitution, national service and immigration.

The media basically portrays the country as if it's progressing, whereas everybody knows that the country is regressing again.

Abraham Zere, executive director, PEN Eritrea

The channel also provides a lifeline to those fleeing Eritrea.

The UN estimates that about 5,000 Eritreans flee the country every month.

For many, Radio Erena is their primary source of information and can mean the difference between life and death. They face different challenges along the way, so Radio Erena tries to produce coverage that will help them at every stage.

"We put them [refugees] in three different categories," explains Biniam Simon, editor-in-chief, Radio Erena. "For those who are inside the refugee camps, we try to explain the hardship, the danger they face if they try to cross to European countries. For those who reach their destinations, we try to give them information on how to integrate and try to live a new life. For those who are on the road, they do face the biggest challenge - a lot of terrible things happen."

When Radio Erena was getting started in 2009, a disturbing trend was developing along one of the main escape routes out of Eritrea. In the Sudanese and Egyptian deserts, refugees were being kidnapped by human traffickers and held for ransom. They would be given a mobile phone to call relatives and beg for money. Families that did not pay would have to listen to their loved ones being tortured repeatedly as the human traffickers tried to extort their ransom.

Meron Estefanos, a human rights activist and journalist at Radio Erena, was one of the only journalists covering the story, so the victims, and those trying to free them, started calling her for help. She became a go-between: as a journalist, Estefanos would shine a light on individual cases, and as an activist, she would help raise the money to pay their ransoms - which raises the ongoing debate over whether or not to pay ransoms, but in this case, it is difficult to argue.

"The man that just called me said that his two children got kidnapped in Sudan and he is being asked for $10,000," says Estafanos. "And this is a newly arrived refugee himself and he has no money. So I was trying to convince him it's ok, call my friend, I'll send you her number. She will help you."

What sets the Eritrean refugee story apart is that they are not fleeing a war, but the by-product of a war.

Mandatory national service was introduced to rebuild the country after Eritrea's war with Ethiopia. The terms are meant to be 18 months, but according to Amnesty International, national service can be indefinite, often lasting decades - turning it into a form of forced labour. The government denies this, but most Eritrean refugees say that's why they fled the country.

Two years ago the EU quadrupled its foreign aid to Eritrea to $237m to keep refugees out of Europe. The money came with the vague provision that Eritrea would improve its track record on human rights.

However, when a France 24 crew was granted rare access to the country last year, it managed to show, through an unscheduled stop on its guided tour, that the practice of indefinite national service continues.

Eritreans who listen to Radio Erena will know the horrors that await them if they flee the country, but still they choose to leave.

"Migration is not the solution, fleeing is not, it's not gonna change anything," says Estefanos. "I strongly believe that, so I try to talk as much about these issues, about the kidnappings, so that people don't even attempt [to flee]. Whatever is making you unhappy, try to change it in your country. But if you flee, this is what will happen to you. So discouraging people from fleeing from Eritrea, this is one of the things that I fight for."

Contributors:
Meron Estefanos, host, 'Voices of Eritrean Refugees,' Radio Erena
Abraham Zere, executive director, PEN Eritrea
Biniam Simon, editor-in-chief, Radio Erena

Source: Al Jazeera