Government expels last foreign correspondent

New York, September 10, 2004—The last remaining foreign correspondent in Eritrea left the country yesterday after the government ordered his expulsion, he told the Committee to Protect Journalists in an interview today.

Jonah Fisher, who worked in Eritrea for 18 months as correspondent for the BBC and Reuters, said authorities gave no reason for his expulsion but that he had faced a “pattern of increasing difficulties.”

Fisher told CPJ he was summoned September 2 to the Information Ministry, where an official said his press accreditation was being revoked and that he should prepare to leave. Four days later, after the authorities received faxed protests from the BBC and Reuters, Fisher received a call from the same official who told him he must leave Eritrea within three days.

Eritrea has no private press since a crackdown three years ago when it banned independent media and jailed a number of journalists. Seventeen local journalists are now imprisoned in Eritrea, and many have been held incommunicado since September 2001. In 2004, for the third year running, CPJ named the tiny Horn of Africa nation one of the world’s 10 worst places to be a journalist.

Fisher said it was “impossible to tell” why Eritrean authorities expelled him, but his May 24 story in the London daily The Independent may have triggered it. The story, marking Eritrea’s 11th anniversary of independence, noted an Amnesty International report on human rights abuses. It was headlined: “To some Eritreans, freedom means prison and torture.”

Fisher said officials may also have been angered by a recent BBC interview in which he said that “according to human rights groups, Eritreans who are forcibly repatriated face detention and torture.” The interview focused on the recent hijacking of an airplane by Eritreans being deported from Libya. Fisher said the hijacking was not reported in Eritrea’s state-controlled press until a week after it happened.

The journalist told CPJ that in a conversation about three weeks before his expulsion, Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed had accused him of “racist negative reporting” and said that he “knew who [Fisher] really worked for.” Eritrea has in the past accused journalists of being foreign spies, and used “national security” concerns as an excuse to jail them.

“This outrageous and unjustified expulsion of Jonah Fisher sadly underlines the Eritrean government’s appalling record on press freedom and human rights,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “As the anniversary of the 2001 crackdown approaches, we call on the authorities to reverse this trend of repression by releasing all of the jailed journalists, allowing foreign correspondents to return, and allowing the independent media to contribute again to development and democracy in Eritrea.”