New York, September 18, 2003—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) today marked the second anniversary of the Eritrean government’s crackdown on the country’s political opposition and the private press by calling for the release of 17 jailed journalists.[See list of jailed journalists.] With the journalists in prison and no domestic independent media, Eritrea has earned the dubious distinction of being Africa’s leading jailer of journalists, as well as one of CPJ’s “10 Worst Places to be a Journalist” two years in a row.
On September 18, 2001, Eritrean authorities banned all non-state print media outlets following calls from senior politicians for political reform and the appearance of editorials on democracy and human rights in the local press. Officials sealed off the newsrooms of weekly publications, such as Meqaleh, Setit, and Tsigenay, and seized the newspapers’ equipment, according to sources in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara.
Within days, the government began rounding up journalists, arresting at least 10 by the end of the month. Several more reporters went into hiding or fled the country.
During the last two years, authorities have arrested even more journalists—almost all of them have been held incommunicado.
Eritrean authorities have given different reasons for the journalists’ arrests. In April 2003, President Isaias Afewerki said the journalists were “spies” who had been bribed to create division in the country. Acting Information Minister Ali Abdu echoed this sentiment in early May, calling the journalists “mercenaries” and saying their imprisonment was a matter of national security.
Officials have also claimed that some journalists are not in prison but are performing mandatory national military service. Eritrean sources told CPJ that this is an excuse meant to conceal the fact that these journalists have been detained for criticizing the government and to prevent them from practicing their profession.
CPJ has met and corresponded with numerous U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, to gain support for the imprisoned journalists. CPJ also conducted a fact-finding mission to Eritrea last summer. (Click here to read an article based on that mission,)
In February 2003, CPJ delivered a petition with more than 600 signatures to President Afewerki calling for the release of jailed Eritrean journalist Fesshaye Yohannes (commonly known as Joshua), a recipient of CPJ’s 2002 International Press Freedom Award.
“The Eritrean government has demonstrated that it has no regard whatsoever for the rights of journalists,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We will not stop campaigning for our colleagues until they are released.”