|Keeping The Spotlight On
Eritrea's Jailed Journalists
|By CPJ:Committe to Protect Journalists - Oct 04,
Abdu, once the top editor of Admas, a private weekly in
Eritrea, fled his homeland in 2000 after getting a series of
threats from government agents. He was one of the lucky ones,
as it turned out. In a massive crackdown in September 2001,
the government rounded up and jailed many of Eritrea's most
prominent journalists and closed down all of the country's
private news outlets. |
The fate of those jailed journalists has
become ever more precarious as this nation along the Red Sea
has grown increasingly isolated. Abdu and several colleagues,
believing they might be the best way to draw international
attention to their imprisoned colleagues, have launched an
association of journalists in exile to report on the cases.
At least 13 journalists are behind bars in Eritrea,
with two more enduring prolonged forced labor euphemistically
called "national service." These grim statistics have made
Eritrea one of the world's five biggest jailers of journalists
for five consecutive years, according to CPJ research. The
imprisoned journalists have not been formally charged.
Eritrean authorities have refused to discuss their
whereabouts, the conditions of their imprisonment, or the
precise nature of the allegations against them.
CPJ interview, presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel
denied that the journalists were imprisoned because of what
they wrote, saying only that they "were involved in acts
against the national interest of the state." He said "the
substance of the case is clear to everybody" but declined to
detail any supporting evidence.
"We feel like they are
being forgotten," said Abdu, whose Admas colleague,
Said Abdelkader, is among those imprisoned. "Unless we address
what happened, the outside world cannot do more."
either the Red Cross nor family members
are allowed to visit the jailed reporters, making it difficult
to determine the journalists' health and, in some cases,
whether they are alive. What little information can be gleaned
trickles out through members of the exile community. In 2002,
for example, several journalists who escaped the country
alerted CPJ that nine imprisoned journalists had been moved
from police cells in the capital, Asmara, to secret detention
facilities after they attempted a hunger strike.
newly inaugurated Association of Eritrean Journalists in Exile
(AEJE) plans to disseminate information about the jailed
journalists and other media-related issues affecting Eritrea.
The association has launched a Web site, http://www.aeje.org/, and its members stay
connected through an e-mail listserv.
"We want to
advocate for our colleagues who are in jail," said Aaron
Berhane, a founding editor of a banned private newspaper,
Setit, who now lives in Toronto. "We want to record
their history, the work that they have done, to bring their
issue to the public." Two of Berhane's former co-workers are
among those behind bars, including Fesshaye "Joshua" Yohannes,
a 2002 recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award.
Berhane escaped prison by going into hiding, then fleeing to
Several exiled journalists told CPJ that
they struggle with a sense of survivor's guilt that they made
it out of Eritrea, while others did not. They left behind not
only those who were arrested, but also family members and
friends who struggle with the daily hardship of living in one
of the world's poorest and most repressive countries.
"Our major task is to address the human rights
violations in Eritrea ... and to prepare ourselves for Eritrea
to have a free and independent media," Abdu said. AEJE's two
dozen members live around the world, primarily in Canada, the
United States, and, like Abdu, in Sweden. They receive
information from covert networks that include friendly
government employees and security agents. AEJE's membership
counts former journalists from private newspapers, former
state media employees, and diaspora Eritreans who have become
involved in media in their adopted countries.
ritrea gained full independence from Ethiopia in
1993, after Eritrean and Ethiopian guerrilla fighters
overthrew a ruthless military regime that had ruled over both
territories. Journalism enjoyed a brief heyday in the ensuing
years. The nation's first private newspapers were started in
Asmara amid widespread optimism over the country's future. "We
never dreamt of going out of Eritrea," recalled Abdu, who
helped found Admas during that time.
initially supportive of the revolutionary government,
Eritrea's young journalists soon began to question
increasingly autocratic government policies and to press for
democratic reform. A backlash followed. Neil Skene, an
American journalist who led U.S. State Department-backed
training seminars for journalists in Asmara between 1999 and
2001, said a turning point came in 2000, when security forces
briefly arrested several journalists, releasing them with
warnings to tread carefully. "You could see the demise of
democracy," he told CPJ. "These guys without any history of
democracy, suddenly they don't have any idea how to handle
On September 18, 2001, with world attention
focused on the attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon, the Eritrean government banned the private press for
allegedly threatening state security and "jeopardizing
national unity." About a dozen independent journalists were
rounded up by security forces, and, with the press out of
business, the government canceled a general election. Hundreds
of purported government opponents have since been jailed
without due process.
The irony of Eritrea's bleak
situation is that international media coverage has decreased
as the political and humanitarian situation has worsened.
While information flows more quickly and freely in much of
Africa today, Eritrea has gone the other direction. It has
expelled international aid organizations, United
Nations-backed monitors, and a foreign journalist who worked
for Reuters and the BBC.
succeed, the AEJE must overcome fear and division that have
kept many members of the diaspora from criticizing the
government. Tesfaldet A. Meharenna, an Eritrean living in the
United States who founded the popular Web site
Asmarino, said it has not been easy to mobilize an
outcry on human rights issues, partly because some exiled
Eritreans fear that family members back home could be
targeted. "The government works hard to play on that fear," he
Others keep quiet out of pride and a sense
of solidarity. There is "a kind of shared belief on the part
of many that they're a little country under siege from a
hostile world, and they can never say anything that's going to
make it look bad," said Dan Connell, a U.S. journalist who has
written several books on Eritrea.
mission is made more difficult, too, by President Isaias
Afewerki's legendary capriciousness and disdain for
international opinion. One heartrending scenario unfolded in
November 2005, when the government briefly released Dawit
Isaac of Setit, only to re-arrest him two days later,
after he phoned his wife to tell her he'd been freed. Isaac
holds dual Eritrean and Swedish citizenship, and his brief
release came after behind-the-scenes lobbying by the Swedish
government. Some observers speculated that Isaac's re-arrest
stemmed from the attention given his release.
should have all kept quiet," Meharenna said ruefully. Then,
seeming to correct himself, he added: "See, that's what they
want you to do."
The AEJE's struggle is, in many ways,
a battle against hopelessness. Abdu said he understands the
fear and conflicted sentiments among the exiled community.
"But we must go beyond that," he said. "We have to feel like
every Eritrean is our family."
|Last Updated ( Oct
04, 2006 ) ||
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