With 17 journalists in prison in 2003, Eritrea was Africa’s leading jailer of journalists. CPJ named the country one of the “World’s Worst Places to Be a Journalist” for the second consecutive year.
Despite jubilant celebrations in the capital, Asmara, honoring the 10-year anniversary of the country’s independence on May 24, Eritrea’s development has been almost completely halted due to the devastating 1998-2000 border war with neighboring Ethiopia, as well as President Isaias Afewerki’s increasingly dictatorial rule.
Afewerki and top government officials railed against mounting criticism from the international community over Eritrea’s pitiful human rights record and failed to implement democratic reforms promised before the war. Simmering tensions with Ethiopia over border demarcation drew attention throughout 2003, but with no domestic private press and only a handful of international correspondents to cover events, the outside world remained largely oblivious to Eritrea’s shattered economy and the effects of a serious drought.
The government’s crackdown on the press began on September 18, 2001, when authorities banned all nonstate print media after senior politicians called for political reforms, and editorials on democracy and human rights began appearing in the local press. Authorities sealed off the newsrooms of such weekly publications as Meqaleh, Setit, and Tsigenay, and seized the papers’ equipment.
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. Since then, Eritrean authorities have arrested even more journalists. Almost all have been held incommunicado, without access to their families, lawyers, or international organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The government, which admitted for the first time to a CPJ delegation in July 2002 that it was detaining journalists, has given different reasons for the arrests. Top officials have at various times accused the detained journalists of working without licenses or of evading military service, which is compulsory. In a May 20 interview with Reuters, Afewerki claimed that the media were “trying to confuse people by spreading disinformation.” In an earlier interview with Radio France Internationale, he accused the journalists of being “spies” who had been bribed to create division in the country. Though almost all of the journalists were arrested long after the war with Ethiopia formally ended in June 2000, Afewerki said, “In the middle of the war we had to check them. We had to say enough is enough.” Acting Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed has echoed that sentiment, telling the U.N. Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) news agency in May that the incarcerated journalists were “mercenaries,” and that their imprisonment was a matter of national security.
Despite these allegations, no formal charges have been brought against any of the journalists, and the government has given no indication that it intends to formally prosecute them.
Though CPJ research shows that a total of 17 journalists are in detention Eritrean authorities contend that some are performing their military service. All Eritrean citizens are obligated to perform military service, but the required duration of this service has been unclear since the beginning of the war with Ethiopia. Eritrean sources, however, have said the army service requirement is a pretext to arrest journalists for criticizing the government and to prevent them from working.
The July 8, 2003, arrest of Voice of America (VOA) stringer Aklilu Solomon seemed to demonstrate this point. Eritrean authorities claimed that Solomon, who was taken by police to an undisclosed location and has not been heard from since, was driven to a military camp to complete his mandatory national service. The VOA said, however, that Solomon had documents proving he had already completed part of his national service and was exempt from the remainder for medical reasons.
About 10 days earlier, officials had stripped Solomon of his press credentials for reporting on the grief of Eritrean families when the government announced the list of soldiers who died during the war with Ethiopia. Solomon’s reporting contradicted the official version of events, which said that the families had celebrated with pride upon the announcement. Officials said Solomon’s reporting was biased and designed to “please the enemy.”
Police returned to Solomon’s family home shortly after his arrest, disconnected his phone line, and confiscated his tape recorder and several cassettes. Eritrean sources questioned why police would have taken such actions if Solomon had actually been taken to perform military service. Solomon was one of only three Eritrean journalists in the country not working for the state media.
Despite the closure of the local private press, authorities maintain that Eritreans are free to express their political views and write what they want without fear of reprisal. Officials bristled when accused of human rights violations and in turn accused the international community of double standards when it threatened to make aid contingent on democratic reforms, pointing to the United States’ detention of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to justify their crackdown on the basis of “national security” concerns.
With the U.S. military considering building a military base in Eritrea, CPJ wrote to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in early February urging the United States to take into account Eritrea’s appalling press freedom record in its negotiations with Eritrean authorities. In December 2002, Rumsfeld had traveled to Eritrea to meet with Afewerki and discuss possible sites for a base there. When asked at a press conference about the country’s 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 March, the U.S. Defense Department sent a letter to CPJ saying that Rumsfeld had discussed human rights abuses with Eritrean officials and had communicated that such abuses could hamper defense cooperation between the two countries. In the end, the United States opted for a base in Djibouti instead.
In early 2003, the U.S. State Department informed the Eritrean government that the country would be dropped from eligibility for benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) unless human rights conditions improved. At the beginning of 2004, the U.S. government followed up on its warning, canceling Eritrea’s AGOA privileges.
In late July, Eritrean authorities asked the U.N. Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea to close its two outreach centers–located in Asmara and the Western city of Barentu–calling the centers “unnecessary.” The centers provided information on the peace process between Eritrea and Ethiopia, as well as general information on the United Nations, to hundreds of Eritreans. Police stationed outside the centers prevented people from entering. Negotiations with the government to keep the centers open failed, and they were permanently shuttered in September.
According to local sources, only about six international news organizations have correspondents in Eritrea, and only two of those journalists are Eritrean. The government heavily monitors foreign reporters. In March, Acting Information Minister Ahmed lambasted the BBC’s reporting as “far-fetched and off the wall,” according to IRIN, after a BBC reporter asked Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi during an interview if he regretted not having pushed deeper into Eritrea during a successful offensive in the middle of the war.
In early February, CPJ launched its “Free Joshua” campaign to bring attention to the imprisonment of Fesshaye Yohannes, also known as “Joshua,” one of the 17 journalists detained by Eritrean authorities and a recipient of CPJ’s 2002 International Press Freedom Award. On February 5, CPJ delivered a petition signed by 607 people to the Eritrean Embassy in Washington, D.C., calling for Yohannes’ release. By year’s end, the number of signatories to CPJ’s campaign had exceeded 800. CPJ representatives also met with members of the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus to urge them to work for the release of jailed Eritrean journalists.