New York, September 15, 2006—Five years after Eritrea’s brutal crackdown on the independent press, the Committee to Protect Journalists today called for the release of 13 journalists held incommunicado in secret jails and two other journalists forced into extended military service. Basic information about the jailed journalists—most of whom were swept up in a September 18, 2001, crackdown—has become nearly impossible to obtain from official sources in Africa’s most repressive country. But a recent report circulated on several Web sites, and deemed by CPJ sources to be generally credible, paints a picture of brutal prison conditions.
“Not only is the government continuing to hold these prisoners without charge or trial, it is withholding even the most basic information about them—including whether they are still alive,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Eritrea’s blatant disregard for human rights and due process makes it the worst jailer of journalists in Africa.”
With 15 journalists in prison or otherwise deprived of their liberty, Eritrea is also the fourth leading jailer of journalists in the world after China, Cuba and Ethiopia. Most of the journalists were jailed in a crackdown in which the government swept up opposition leaders and shut down the entire private press. At the time, Eritrean officials variously accused the journalists of avoiding the military draft, threatening national security, and failing to observe licensing requirements, but CPJ research indicates that they were targeted as part of a drive to suppress political dissent ahead of scheduled elections, which the government subsequently canceled without explanation. Since then, the Eritrean government has refused to divulge any information about the prisoners’ whereabouts or conditions.
In a recent CPJ interview, presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel denied that the journalists were imprisoned because of what they wrote, saying only that they “were involved in acts against the national interest of the state.” He said “the substance of the case is clear to everybody” but declined to detail any supporting evidence.
The government’s monopoly on domestic media, the fear of reprisal among prisoners’ families, and recently tightened restrictions on the movement of all foreigners have made it extremely difficult to verify information. That includes a recent, unbylined report that first appeared on a pro-Ethiopian government Web site, claiming that jailed opposition leaders and journalists were moved in 2003 to a secretly built desert prison, accessible only on foot and two hours from the nearest populated place. CPJ sources said they believed that the description of the place was credible but some of the report’s details inaccurate. They could not verify its claim that at least three journalists had died in custody.
The report does not attribute the source of its details, but CPJ sources believe they may have come from at least one prison guard who fled into exile. Its content is detailed and it contains a section on the conditions and directives for the prison guards. The report was first posted on www.aigaforum.com, a Web site close to the government of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a bitter rival of its neighboring country. It was subsequently posted on Eritrean diaspora sites such as www.awate.com and www.asmarino.com, which said they believed some of its content to be correct.
Repeated attempts by CPJ to reach Eritrean government officials in Asmara were unsuccessful. Officials at the Eritrean embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return messages seeking comment.
See CPJ’s list of journalists imprisoned in Eritrea: