MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Our next story is about a place where staying in on a Friday night has become a political act of defiance. I'm talking about the tiny African country of Eritrea. As NPR's Gregory Warner reports, it's one of the most closed societies in the world, where torture and arbitrary detention are routine and public protest is forbidden.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Here are the ground rules for life in Eritrea. It's illegal to criticize the government, which could mean complaining about the city power outage.
ISAYAS SIUM: Even asking a question like where is my father, if your father is in jail, you just cannot even ask, let alone protest or criticize the regime.
WARNER: Isayas Sium left Eritrea in 1995. He's now a software engineer in San Jose, California, from where he tries in his way to contest the authoritarian regime in his homeland. He marches when there's a demonstration, contributes to refugee causes and posts on Facebook.
But the people inside Eritrea don't dare to like his posts or ever march in the streets themselves. For Eritrean activists living abroad, this silence can be frustrating. Like they're standing at the bedside of a paralyzed relative waiting for some sign, some squeeze of the hand.
SIUM: That's when I start thinking and finally I said, well, if we cannot ask them to come out, what if we ask them to stay at home?
WARNER: To stay at home on Friday night, when Eritreans like to hit the coffee shops and movie houses. To stay at home as a passive, and thus hopefully unpunishable, act of dissidence. Dubbing their movement Freedom Friday, Isayas and other activists now just had to inform Eritreans in a country with no independent media.
So, says Selam Kidane in London, they got a phonebook.
SELAM KIDANE: The phonebook, the Eritrean phonebook, which is not available online, but we had a hard copy of it.
WARNER: How did you get a phonebook?
KIDANE: We had it smuggled out of Eritrea.
WARNER: With the smuggled phonebook and a cadre of volunteers around the world amassed on Facebook, they started cold calling the fatherland.
KIDANE: You know, at first it was a strange thing for somebody that you don't know to phone you randomly and talk to you about things that are considered quite dangerous, actually.
SIUM: The first question they ask is, where did you get my number? Then we tell them, I got your number from the phone directory. So some of them say, OK, thank you. Some of them, they will just hang up after they hear our message.
WARNER: You mean they just listen and not say anything and hang up?
WARNER: Encouraged by the response but frustrated by how few calls a couple of dozen volunteers can make on a Thursday night, they turned then to a tool favored by telemarketers and loathed by dinner-eaters the world over. That's right, Freedom Friday got a robocall.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)
WARNER: After this taped message was sent to 10,000 Eritrean phones, Selam Kidane says she learned something about her countrymen. They're not as fearful as she thought they'd be. According to inside sources and recent refugees who've fled, she says staying home on Friday nights in Eritrea is becoming kind of cool.
KIDANE: We thought, you know, people would stay at home and not talk about it. But it was seen as a fun thing, in the kind of jokey young-people way that everybody was talking about that. Oh, I didn't see you yesterday. Did you stay home because it's Freedom Friday, sort of thing. So it wasn't a big political statement, but it was a subtle way of people, you know, oh, you did that too, sort of way.
WARNER: It turned out that getting a phone call and staying home on date night are not things that Eritreans worry about being punished for. But they became small acts of defiance.
EMILIO MANFREDI: To me, it seems a very naive experiment.
WARNER: Emilio Manfredi is a consultant with the International Crisis Group. He says if or when change does comes to Eritrea, it's much more likely to be a coup or military overthrow, not a popular movement from a people paralyzed by fear. But Isayas, in California, says the initial goal of Freedom Friday was never as grandiose as regime change. It was really more of a cry into the void, like, is anyone there?
SIUM: And this is also to see, can people hear us? Can they listen to us? So that's the idea. It's just linking the diaspora movement with what is inside.
WARNER: Ninety-five thousand phone calls later, a handful have actually called them back, saying they're ready to do more.
Gregory Warner, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.