Eritrea ten years on: Journalists remain imprisoned

Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Staff of the newspaper Setit were arrested by the Eritrean government after the newspaper published a letter by senior government officials criticizing the government in September 2001.
Eritrea ten years on: Journalists remain imprisoned Almost ten years after President Isaias Afewerki cracked down on independent press in Eritrea, journalists remain imprisoned without due process in inhumane living conditions. In September 2001, in advance of an election which was eventually cancelled, ten journalists were arrested for publishing articles critical of the government. Of those ten, six remain in prison, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The other four are believed to have died in prison. In total almost 30 journalists and four media assistants are believed to be imprisoned in a country that has experienced instability for the past five decades. Eritrea fought a war of independence with Ethiopia for over 30 years and formally gained independence in 1993. President Afewerki, who began ruling the country years before Eritrea’s independence, has sustained a repressive regime with little room for dissent and no tolerance for a free press. No privately-owned news media exists in what is probably the worst country for journalists. RSF ranks it dead last among 178 countries in its press freedom index, a notoriety it has maintained since 2007. According to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Eritrea is “the third worst jailer of journalists” in 2010 behind China and Iran, a chilling statistic for a small country of five million people. Eritrean journalists speak out Aaron Berhane, a former recipient of CJFE’s Journalists in Distress fund, provided CJFE with an overview of the situation for journalists in Eritrea. Berhane, an Eritrean journalist, co-founded the newspaper Setit, which was targeted by the Eritrean government after it published a letter by senior government officials criticizing the government in September 2001. The government arrested the newspaper’s staff, while Berhane managed to escape the country in January 2002 after months in hiding.
What is happening in Eritrea is beyond anybody’s imagination. The country is run without a constitution. The parliament has not met since 2002. There has been no freedom of speech whatsoever since 2001, and no freedom of religion or movement. The country is in its darkest side of history. I was editor-in-chief and co-founder of Setit, the first independent newspaper in Eritrea. My profession exposed me to many challenges, but what happened in early September 2001 was a turning point in my life. Everything changed; I was forced to go into exile, leaving my family behind. All seven independent newspapers in Eritrea were shut down in September 2001, and ten journalists were arrested. Four out of the ten journalists died in prison and we do not know the status of the rest. However, since they have been held in shipping containers in Eiraeiro (a prison camp with an average temperature of 40 degrees Celsius), their fate is sadly predictable. Eiraeiro was built to inflict a slow painful death on the detainees. They are locked in metal shipping containers, which magnify the extreme heat during the day and extreme cold during the night. According to Eyob Bahta Habtemariam, who served as a team leader of the prison guard at Eiraeiro and Embatkala (located east of Asmara) from September 2001 until he fled the country in February 2010, the detainees are dying one after the other. Year after year the number of jailed journalists increases. Currently, there are about 20 journalists in jail and about 50 in exile. No charges have been filed against them. They are dying in prison simply for calling for the implementation of the constitution and pressing for democracy. The paranoid president still sees them as a threat to his dictatorial regime. Despite continuous calls from the international community, he prefers to keep the journalists in detention. Arbitrary arrests and unlimited government control over all group activities is increasingly common. It is illegal for more than five people to meet. Telephones are tapped and internet cafés are scrutinized. Everybody is living in constant fear. To the shame of President Isaias Afewerki’s government, the country has one radio station, one television station and one newspaper. All are owned by the government. Moreover, the government controls the internet by providing a very slow and low quality of internet service. -Aaron Berhane
Berhane is currently working as a journalist in Toronto, Canada, where he is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Meftih, a monthly community newspaper. He was reunited with his wife and three children, who fled Eritrea in May 2010. The most recent edition of Meftih can be found here. CJFE also spoke with an Eritrean journalist who had recently fled the country, on the condition of anonymity. He told CJFE: “The current situation of Eritrean journalists, as I see it, is like cattle for meat production, surrounded and guarded till the right time comes to be killed. The trend has been: anyone trying to make a different sound would be killed first. My fellow Eritrean journalists are working under heavy control. They would not dare talk with a foreigner… There are many journalists who were arrested for just having tea or coffee with foreign nationalities.” International advocacy for the release of imprisoned journalists Human rights organizations and watchdogs have difficulty obtaining information about prisoners held in Eritrea. The Eritrean government remains silent about the location and well-being of those they have arrested. Detainees are often held without charge or trial and deprived of medical attention. When CPJ contacted the Eritrean Information Ministry in 2010, Emmanuel Hadgo, a public relations officer, said that the government has “disavowed any knowledge whatsoever about the imprisoned editors. By the government’s accounting, these human beings have disappeared.” There has been little mainstream media attention on the situation, aside from the initial arrests and the deaths of journalists. When greater media attention is given to an issue, there is often increased international pressure for a government to respond. The Eritrean government has resisted calls for their release, due process and access to the journalists, who have been denied prison visits. In addition to maintaining a list of journalists being held in Eritrean prisons, the journalist who spoke with CJFE recommended the international community “continue speaking for the immediate release of those who are dying in detention hells.” CJFE has sent a letter to the Eritrean government, calling on them to cease the harsh and secretive detention of journalists, and to release all journalists imprisoned without charge or fair trial. The letter can be read here. Below is a list of Eritrean journalists believed to currently be imprisoned in Eritrea, and the year they were arrested. Due to the difficulty in getting critical information out of Eritrea, this list is not complete. Journalists believed to currently be detained in Eritrea Araya Defoch (2009) Basilios Zemo (2009) Bereket Misghina (2009) Biniam Ghirmay (2009) Daniel Mussie (2006) Dawit Habtemichael (2001) Dawit Isaac (2001) Emanuel Asrat (2001) Esmail Abd-el-Kader (2009) Eyob Netserab (2007) Ghebrehiwet /Eyob Kessete (2010) Girmay Abraham (2009) Hamid Mohamed Said (2002) Identité inconnue (2007) Isaac Abraham (2008) Mattewos Habteab (2001) Meles Negusse Kiflu (2009) Mohammed Said Mohammed (2009) Mulubrhan Habtegebriel (2008) Nega Woldegeorgis (2007) Said Abdulhai (2010) Saleh Al Jezaeeri (2002) Senait Habtu (2009) Seyoum Tsehaye (2001) Simon Elias (2009) Temesgen Gebreyesus (2001) Yemane Hagos (2009) Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu (2009)

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