Impunity in Eritrea: First-hand accounts of censorship

Thursday, November 21, 2013

By Victoria Quiroz

Eritrea is widely considered to be the most censored country in the world. Since 2007, the North African country has consistently ranked last on Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index, which assesses the degree of freedom journalists enjoy.

Aaron Berhane was a co-founder of Setit, the first independent newspaper in Eritrea. In 2001 however, the Eritrean government shut down all independent newspapers, effectively killing all competition to the government-run media.

When the government came to arrest journalists, Berhane was one of the few able to get away. He fled to Sudan, and was eventually granted asylum in Canada, where he started the Eritrean-Canadian community paper Meftih.

As a part of IFEX’s campaign for the International Day to End Impunity, CJFE hosted a live chat on Tuesday, November 19, 2013, with Aaron Berhane. Award-winning journalist Susan McClelland led the discussion and those who followed the chat were invited to submit questions for Berhane.

The entire live chat is available below, but here are a few highlights from the event that capture the difficulties of expressing oneself in a rampant culture of impunity and censorship.

Inadequate information in the mainstream press

McClelland: Not only were you operating in a climate of no press freedoms, but the people didn't know what a free media was. Nonetheless, you managed within six months to circulate more than 5 times the number of newspapers than the government-controlled paper. Why do you feel you were so well received?

Berhane: We talked about their real problems: shortage of water, mismanagement, we spoke about corrupt generals. Since we spoke about the main issues of the people without repeating what the government media said, people tried to see us as their voice and they always wanted to read our paper.

Intimidation and censorship a means to limit press freedom

Berhane: Finally they stopped that censorship because it was difficult for them [to maintain]. But then they started to intimidate us. They would slow us down by placing calls to our office and asking us questions about why we were writing these things when the country was at war. They warned us to be careful if we wanted to stay in business.

9/11: an opportunity to take down the independent media

Berhane: The government got a good chance to attack us when the World Trade Center was attacked, on September 11, 2001. Because the attention of the world switched towards the US, and no one was watching what was happening in Eritrea. So the President was smart enough to exploit it.

Inhumane conditions for imprisoned journalists

Berhane: 5 journalists have died in prison in Eritrea because of mistreatment, torture, and poor conditions. They are being kept in shipping containers, which is very hot in the summer, and difficult to survive in. They are not allowed visitors, and can't see their families, or human rights organizations.

International pressure could make a difference

McClelland: Can you hold the government accountable?

Berhane: Of course, there are ways to make the government accountable. One is to put international pressure. You can put sanctions against the government, or send an independent organization to monitor the activities of the government. The government may say this is our government and we can run it however we want, but the international community can play a great role in controlling the government in dictatorships around the world, including Eritrea.

Surveillance and poor internet access limit information

Berhane: Unfortunately, in Eritrea, the Internet service is very slow. There are 5, maybe 6 Internet cafes in the capital city. It isn’t allowed to have Internet access in your home. So even if they want, they can't afford it. And the internet cafes are monitored by security agents, so people often don’t feel comfortable enough to read or open any website. So if one individual opens a website of the opposition, he would definitely be followed, and interrogated, summoned to the police station. So, out of fear, many people don't check those opposition websites - so it is difficult to say the internet would help our community. And unfortunately, illiteracy is still a barrier, and there is no electricity 3-4 days a week. There are so many factors at work.

Throughout the chat, Berhane emphasized that Eritrea’s climate of impunity could best be helped by the implementation of a truly democratic government. Until that time however, obtaining and disseminating information within the country remains a serious challenge.

Once again, CJFE extends a big thank you to Aaron and Susan for generating such an informative and engaging live chat, as well as to our guests for contributing questions, comments and participating in the event.
Be sure to keep an eye out for more stimulating live chats from CJFE in the future!

Victoria Quiroz is a final-year journalism student at Humber College and part-time CJFE intern. To see more of her work visit, or follow her on Twitter: @nevervicky

View the entire chat with Berhane and McClelland below.

Having trouble viewing the liveblog? Watch it here.