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New York, March 7, 2003—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) yesterday received a response from the U.S. Defense Department to a letter sent on February 5, 2003, to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. CPJ had written to Rumsfeld expressing concern about 18 journalists in Eritrea who are currently being held incommunicado, as well as the Eritrean government’s decision to ban all private press in the country. (Click here to read CPJ’s letter.)

In December 2002, Rumsfeld met with Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki while visiting Eritrea to investigate possible sites for a U.S. military base. When asked at a press conference about the country’s abysmal press freedom record Rumsfeld noted that Eritrea “is a sovereign nation, and they arrange themselves and deal with their problems in ways that they feel are appropriate to them.”

In response to CPJ’s letter, Theresa Whelan, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Africa, wrote: “The Secretary is well aware of the Government of Eritrea’s human rights abuses and discussed their impact on our relationship during his visit. He strongly pointed out to President Isaias that failure to resolve these issues would harm our ability to proceed toward regularizing our defense cooperation regardless of the advantages cooperation offered both sides.”