New York, September 20, 2001---Eritrean authorities have suspended all the country's privately owned newspapers until further notice, the state radio station announced on Tuesday.
Newspapers affected by the suspension order include Meqaleh, Setit, Tiganay, Zemen, Wintana, and Admas. It is unclear what prompted the decision, which surprised both Eritrean and foreign observers.
CPJ sources in the capital, Asmara, saw the move as an attempt by President Isayas Afeworki's government to suppress independent news coverage of an ongoing state crackdown on opponents of the People's Front for Democracy and Justice, the party that has ruled Eritrea since independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
According to Eritrea's ambassador to the United States, however, the papers were suspended for failing to comply with media licensing requirements under the country's press laws. Embassy officials said authorities had warned the publishers several times before today's suspension order.
In a telephone interview, Ambassador Girma Asmeron told CPJ that the papers would remain out of print while authorities investigate their current licenses. "This procedure will be transparent and in accordance with the laws of the country," he said.
Yet Ali Abdu, the head of the state television network, told the BBC that the newspapers had been suspended in the interest of national unity after being given ample time to "correct their mistakes."
The so-called mistakes apparently amount to publishing critical letters about the government's crackdown on political dissent, the BBC reported.
In the early hours of September 18, authorities rounded up six former high-ranking members of the ruling party, including army generals and ex-ministers. According to The Associated Press, all six were among 15 members of the ruling party who signed a letter in May that called President Afeworki undemocratic.
The government-owned daily newspaper, Haddas Erta, is now the only publication allowed in the small and increasingly unstable Horn of Africa nation.
"CPJ believes that the newspapers were suspended in an effort to stifle public criticism of the Eritrean government," said executive director Ann Cooper. "The licensing issue is clearly a pretext to justify this action and only confirms our view that licensing print media obstructs the exercise of press freedom."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This alert has been updated to reflect the correct name of the government-owned daily Haddas Erta.