Eritrea was Africa’s foremost jailer of journalists in 2002. The crackdown began in the summer of 2001 after a dozen senior officials and other members of the ruling elite signed public letters criticizing President Isaias Afewerki’s dictatorial rule. The letters, which were leaked to the press, prompted a slew of editorials about human rights, democracy, and the border war with Ethiopia, which lasted from 1998 until 2000 and killed 19,000 Eritreans. On September 9, 2001, the weekly newspaper Setit printed an open letter to the president that sparked a full-blown political crisis. Days later, Afewerki launched a devastating clampdown on dissent, arresting top officials, banning the press, and jailing journalists and other critics.
The arrests of journalists continued in 2002, rising to 18 from 11 in 2001. To highlight this abysmal record, as well as the plight of Eritrea’s journalists, CPJ honored imprisoned Setit editor Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes with a 2002 International Press Freedom Award.
But such efforts to highlight the country’s disastrous human rights situation were seriously hampered by the U.S.-led “war on terrorism,” which prompted a parade of American officials to visit Eritrea in 2002 to forge an anti-terror partnership. None of ´he visitors wanted to spotlight their potential partner’s human rights record; U.S. officials were more interested in the possibility of opening an American Army base in Eritrea.
U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld carefully skirted the issue of human rights when he came to Eritrea in December; when asked at a press conference in the capital, Asmara, about Eritrea’s ban on the private press and the unlawful jailing of journalists, Rumsfeld responded that Eritrea “is a sovereign nation and they arrange themselves and deal with their problems in ways that they feel are appropriate to them.”
Eritrea, meanwhile, lobbied hard to lure the U.S. military, hiring the Washington-based lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig to make the case that Eritrea would be an excellent staging ground for a U.S.-led war against Iraq. The lobbying campaign, which costs the country $50,000 a month, was another sign to Eritreans that the government that had led them to joyous independence from Ethiopia 11 years ago is now out of touch and uninterested in dealing with such huge problems as joblessness, drought, and famine.
Meanwhile, two local employees of the U.S. Embassy in Asmara have remained jailed since their arrests in October 2001 for translating reports from the Eritrean press for the embassy. Eritrea’s leaders insist that the two, along with journalists and political reformers, were working to destabilize Eritrea. They also accuse independent journalists of being paid by Ethiopian and other unidentified hostile forces–charges never verified but often used by officials to justify the September 2001 crackdown.
Eritrean leaders also continued their protracted diplomatic battles with several European countries, more than a year after Italian ambassador Antonio Bandini was deported for criticizing Afewerki’s treatment of the opposition and the private press. In February, the Eritrean government said it was “dismayed by the unfair and unjustified resolution adopted by the European Parliament,” which denounced the Eritrean Parliament’s decision to maintain a ban on opposition parties and to delay general elections indefinitely.
Until early 2002, the jailed journalists were confined in dingy cells at Asmara’s Police Station One. But on March 31, ten of them began a hunger strike to protest their continued detention without charge. In a message smuggled from inside the police station, the prisoners said they would refuse food until they were either released or charged and given a fair trial. Three days later, nine of them were transferred to an undisclosed detention facility. The 10th, Swedish national Dawit Isaac, was sent to a hospital, where he was treated for posttraumatic stress disorder allegedly resulting from torture in custody. His health status was unclear at year’s end.
In July, a CPJ delegation visited Asmara to press for the journalists’ freedom. The delegation–comprising CPJ board member Josh Friedman, Washington, D.C., representative Frank Smyth, and Africa program coordinator Yves Sorokobi–was the first human rights monitoring group to be allowed into Eritrea since the crackdown began. During CPJ’s visit, the government admitted for the first time that it was holding journalists in secret detention facilities. However, in a July 18 meeting in his Asmara office, presidential spokesperson Yermane Gebremesken told CPJ that only “about eight” news professionals were being held. He declined to disclose their whereabouts, asserting that the crackdown was less draconian than the U.S. government’s indefinite detention of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The CPJ delegates also met with foreign diplomats and representatives of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Asmara. Mission head Legweila Joseph Legweila told CPJ that he feels “sorry for the repression of journalists in Eritrea … but protecting free press is not part of the mission’s mandate.”
At around the same time, the Eritrean government began asking donors to help it prevent an impending famine, which the government blames on the border conflict with Ethiopia and natural calamities. Relations with Ethiopia remain complex, with many Eritreans continuing to flee to their neighboring former colonial power. (Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a 30-year armed struggle.)
The media implications of Eritrea’s thorny relations with Ethiopia and the war of words that pitted Eritrean journalists against their Ethiopian colleagues during the border war were analyzed in a feature article in the fall/winter issue of CPJ’s biannual magazine, Dangerous Assignments.
Simret Seyoum, Setit
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Hamid Mohammed Said, Eritrean State Radio
Saadia, Eritrean State Television
Saleh Aljezeeri, Eritrean State Radio