Attacks on the Press 2000: Eritrea

REVERSALS IN THE BORDER WAR WITH ETHIOPIA and the signing of a peace agreement in December gave rise to a few skeptical stirrings in the Eritrean press. But the generally patriotic, pro-state orientation of local journalists impeded independent verification of reported press freedom abuses.

In October, eight independent journalists were arrested for avoiding military service, even though reporters are normally exempt from the draft because their work is considered of vital public service. Several private papers chose not to publish in the week after the arrests, the BBC reported. But after international press freedom groups sent formal letters of protest to the Eritrean government on their behalf, the detained journalists released a joint statement condemning the tone of the letters. They vehemently denied having been targeted because of their profession, and emphasized that as Eritrean citizens it was their duty to serve in the military. CPJwas unable to determine whether this statement was issued under duress.

The government of President Isaias Afeworki does not officially censor local journalism, but the armed effort to safeguard Eritrea’s 1991 independence from Ethiopia has made self-censorship a matter of course. In 2000, also, the government imposed an effective news blackout on the war and asked newspapers not to publish “anti-patriotic information.” Some journalists claimed they were threatened with prison or military service for publishing news about the war without prior authorization, even when their stories were sympathetic to the government.

In principle, the 1996 Press Law allows private newspapers and magazines to operate freely in the country, while broadcast media remain under government control. But the self-described independent press is also closely affiliated with the populist, militaristic Afeworki regime, which will face its first general elections in December 2001.