New York, May 22, 2003—In a recent interview, Eritrean president Isaias Afewerki justified his government’s continuing crackdown on the independent media there by saying that the media were spreading disinformation.
In September 2001, authorities closed all private media outlets in the country and arrested independent journalists and political reform activists. Eighteen independent journalists remain in jail, including 2002 CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient Fesshaye Johannes, known as Joshua.
In a Tuesday, May 20, interview, Afewerki claimed that the media were not performing their proper role. “It’s not ‘press.’ It’s serving other objectives and trying to confuse people by spreading disinformation. We cannot allow that to happen,” Afewerki told Reuters.
A bloody border war between Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia ended in 2000, and journalists have been caught in the middle. Last month, Afewerki told Radio France-Internationale that the imprisoned journalists were “spies” who were being bribed to create division in the country, saying, “in the middle of the war we had to check them. We had to say enough is enough.”
On World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2003, CPJ named Eritrea as one of the 10 Worst Places to be a Journalist. Shortly after, Eritrea’s acting information minister, Ali Abdu, told the U.N. Integrated Information Networks news agency that the incarcerated journalists in Eritrea were “mercenaries,” and that their imprisonment was a matter of national security.
CPJ reiterates its call for the release of all 18 journalists in Eritrea, including CPJ awardee Johannes.
The popular editor of the weekly Setit, Johannes was jailed in September 2001 for covering a dispute among Eritrea’s leadership about how the country should be governed. On February 5, 2003, CPJ board members Clarence Page and Josh Friedman and Africa program coordinator Yves Sorokobi presented to Eritrea’s ambassador to the United States, Girma Asmeron, 607 petitions calling for the journalist’s release.
The campaign has continued to grow, with journalists worldwide signing an online petition on behalf of Johannes. CPJ continues to deliver these petitions to the Eritrean Embassy. The link is available at http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/2003/Joshua/petition.html.