Since Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991, neither the concept of press freedom nor the reality of a free press has made much headway, according to Eritrean journalists. Local media continued to be dominated by jingoistic coverage of the ongoing war with Ethiopia, which broke out in May 1998.
Eritrea has one state newspaper and 13 private newspapers. While the 1996 press law allows private newspapers and magazines, broadcast media remain under government control. According to one government radio journalist, most state media employees, including himself, are former combatants. “Our focus now is solely on the war, and our support for the government in its war effort is unanimous,” he said.
Others are less enthusiastic, at least in private. While there is no official censorship, journalists say they censor themselves when covering sensitive topics such as the war effort and President Isaias Afeworki, who is said to enjoy considerable popularity. Some journalists contend that negative coverage of either would earn them a beating or worse. Fearing reprisals, some clear their stories with officials before publication.
Foreign journalists and other visitors to Eritrea have said that the Eritrean public–including the press–is so nationalistic that censorship is unnecessary. Even so, the authorities do not tolerate “independent thinking out loud,” as one journalist put it. In November, for example, Milkias Mihretab, editor of the private newspaper Keste Demena, was accused of contempt of court for criticizing the Eritrean judicial system in an editorial. Mihretab was released on bail and warned to stop writing altogether.
Milkias Mihretab, Keste Demena IMPRISONED
Police officers arrested Mihretab, editor of the weekly private newspaper Keste Demena, at his office in Asmara. He was taken to the Zone 6 police station and charged with defamation for refusing to reveal the origin of a letter to the editor (publication date unknown) that criticized the Saudi national airline. It is unclear why the Eritrean government was so sensitive about this issue.
Mihretab was also accused of contempt of court for writing an editorial (date unknown) that criticized the Eritrean judicial system. According to Mihretab, he was released on bail with a “strong warning not to write anything again.” He appeared in court on December 31 to hear the charges against him. The defamation trial was scheduled to start on January 12, 2000.