Three years after a brutal crackdown in which the government shuttered independent media outlets and detained large numbers of critics, Eritrea remained the leading jailer of journalists in Africa. Seventeen journalists were still in prison at the end of 2004, many held incommunicado in secret jails, according to CPJ research.
The government's repressive policies have left the nation without even a nominal private press, and with precious little international media scrutiny. In September, the government expelled Jonah Fisher, a reporter for the BBC and Reuters, who was the only foreign correspondent in Eritrea at the time. Agence France-Presse later dispatched a reporter to the country.
Eritrea's economy worsened and tensions increased with its neighbors, but news coverage of these vital issues was sparse because independent reporting was not tolerated. Sudan accused Eritrea of arming and training rebels in crisis-ridden Darfur in western Sudan—a charge that Eritrean officials denied. Ethiopia, Eritrea's one-time foe in a devastating border war, refused until late November to accept a 2002 independent boundary commission ruling that awarded the disputed town of Badme to Eritrea. The two countries had promised to respect the commission's ruling as part of their 2000 peace accord.
Tensions also grew over U.N. forces patrolling the disputed border with Ethiopia. In May, the United Nations said Eritrea illegally detained its local staff and restricted the movement of its vehicles, while Eritrea accused U.N. peacekeepers of crimes including pedophilia and "using the national currency as toilet paper," according to the BBC.
The government's crackdown on the independent media began on September 18, 2001, one week after the terrorist attacks on the United States, when the eyes of the world were focused on New York and Washington, D.C. It came a year after the border war with Ethiopia had ended, at a time when some politicians were calling for democratic reform, and editorial writers at Eritrea's handful of private newspapers were promoting democracy and human rights. Amnesty International reported that "thousands" of government critics remained detained in secret jails in 2004.
"Conditions of detention in these secret prisons, as described by released or escaped prisoners, are extremely harsh," Amnesty International reported in May. "Many prisoners are held in crowded underground cells where they hardly ever see daylight. ... Many are said to have died in custody as a result of torture or absence of medical treatment."
No jailed journalist was formally charged with any crime, despite the fact that Eritrean law forbids holding prisoners for more than 30 days without charge. The regime of President Asaias Aferwerki refused to release information about the health, whereabouts, or legal status of the detained journalists. Instead, it accused them of being foreign spies and mercenaries. Responding to a CPJ question at a Washington press conference in May, Eritrea's ambassador to the United States, Girma Asmerom, said that the detainees were not journalists but "paid agents of the enemy." He said that "most of them" were detained for "national security reasons."
In a published report, Aferwerki dismissed the very notion of a free press. "What is free press? There is no free press anywhere," Aferwerki told the BBC's Fisher for a story on the network's Web site. "It's not in England; it's not in the United States. We'd like to know what free press is in the first place."
In September, despite protests from the BBC and Reuters, authorities gave Fisher three days to leave the country, "No explanation was given, but as a foreigner I am fortunate," Fisher wrote. "Had I been Eritrean I have little doubt that I would now be in detention." Fisher, who had reported on human rights abuses in Eritrea, said he faced a "pattern of increasing difficulties" leading up to his expulsion. About three weeks before he was forced to leave, Fisher said, Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed accused him of "racist, negative reporting."
The few local journalists who continued filing stories for international organizations after the 2001 clampdown have been harassed, detained, or had their press permits revoked. In July 2003, authorities arrested Voice of America (VOA) stringer Aklilu Solomon after he reported on the grief of families of conscripts killed in the war with Ethiopia. His story contradicted official commemorations of their "martyrdom." Authorities claimed that Solomon was taken to complete his military service, although VOA said he had documents to show he had a medical exemption. CPJ sources said Solomon has been held incommunicado in a metal shipping container at Adi Abeto Prison, near the capital, Asmara.
In October, the government announced it would restrict Internet cafés to unspecified "educational and research centers," according to state media and Agence France-Presse (AFP). The information minister told AFP that the move was aimed at protecting minors from pornography. But CPJ sources said it was intended to block access to independent and opposition Web sites—thus censoring one of the last means of exchanging information with the outside world.