Last Update: Sunday, September 19, 2004. 1:01pm (AEST)
Eritrea under fire for reporters' detention
Branding Eritrea "Africa's biggest prison for the press," a media watchdog is urging the Government to free more than a dozen journalists jailed in a crackdown on newspapers three years ago.
Human rights groups say the tiny country, which is home to about 4 million people, has one of the world's worst records for press freedom.
It shut down all its private newspapers on September 18, 2001.
"The situation is unique in the world," Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said.
"Eritrea has been in an extended news blackout since that night in September 2001 when the Government closed the privately owned newspapers and imprisoned the leading journalists."
Activists say the closure of the private press is just one feature of an appalling human rights situation in Eritrea.
Amnesty International said in a May report that thousands of people have been locked up for criticising the Government.
Eleven high-profile politicians have also been detained since September 2001 by Eritrean authorities, whom Amnesty also accuses of using torture and persecuting minority churches.
President Isayas Afewerki has always denied there are any political prisoners, calling the detainees "traitors."
Families say they are rarely given information on detainees' whereabouts.
"Thanks to President Afewerki's stubbornness, Eritrea today is still the only country in Africa and one of the few in the world where only the Government's press has the right to publish," RSF said.
It says at least 14 journalists have been detained without charge at unknown locations for the past three years, leaving Eritreans to depend on the state press and a few international radio stations for news.
Eritrea expelled a reporter working for the BBC without explanation on September 10, removing the last foreign journalist working for an international news organisation.
Jonah Fisher, who had reported from the capital Asmara for the past 18 months and had also been working as a freelance correspondent for Reuters, said at the time he had been told by Information Ministry officials to leave the country.
Eritrean officials are not immediately contactable.