German media aid to Eritrea raises concerns

May 14, 2007

The Honorable Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul
Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development
C/o German Embassy to the United States
4645 Reservoir Road, NW, Washington DC 20007-1998

Via facsimile: (202) 298-4249

Dear Minister Wieczorek-Zeul:

The Committee to Protect Journalists notes that the German government has decided to fund the training of journalists working for Eritrea’s state-controlled media while the nation’s independent press remains shut down and more than a dozen publishers and editors continue to be held incommunicado, many since September 2001.

We welcome Germany’s interest in media development in Eritrea. However, we are deeply troubled by the Eritrean government’s ongoing repression of independent media. We hope that Germany will use its diplomatic influence to ensure that the Eritrean authorities account for the jailed journalists, including Swedish citizen and Eritrean national Dawit Isaac, co-owner of the defunct private weekly Setit. We are especially concerned because reliable reports indicate that some of these journalists, including Setit‘s award-winning editor Fesshaye Yohannes, may have died in prison.

On April 16, the Deutsche-Welle Akademie (DW-Akademie), an agency whose international journalism training program is funded by your ministry, launched a journalism course to train staff of the Eritrean Information Ministry, according to the state Tigrina-language daily Haddas Eritrea. The training is part of a three-year cooperation agreement signed in December 2006 between DW-Akademie and the Eritrean Information Ministry, according to Haddas Eritrea.

While we are convinced that the DW-Akademie trainees are receiving world-class journalism training, we fear that they will not be able to faithfully exercise their profession since the Eritrean government effectively banned independent journalism in September 2001, and continues to subject the remaining state-controlled journalists to arbitrary imprisonment and threats of reprisals against their families.

Eritrea remains the only nation in sub-Saharan Africa without any independent media outlet. One week after September 11, 2001, the government of President Isaias Afewerki closed all privately owned media and arrested 10 independent journalists, according to CPJ research. Authorities accused the journalists of various alleged national security violations, but they have failed to bring identifiable charges in any known court.

The crackdown came shortly after the private press had covered a split in the ruling party and provided a forum for debate on Afewerki’s autocratic rule. Setit published on September 9, 2001, a letter addressed to the government stating that “people can tolerate hunger and other problems for a long time, but they can’t tolerate the absence of good administration and justice.” The crackdown was part of a government drive to eliminate political dissent ahead of elections, scheduled for December 2001 but canceled without explanation by the government.

The jailed journalists initially had limited access to the outside world as they were first held at a police station in the capital, Asmara, where they began a hunger strike on March 31, 2002. In a message smuggled from their jail, the journalists said they would refuse food until they were released or charged and given due process of law. But the government quickly transferred the journalists to secret locations.

Holding the journalists incommunicado, the government–with one exception explained below–has refused to divulge their whereabouts, their health, or even whether they are still alive. Officials at the Eritrean embassy in Washington and at the Information Ministry in Asmara have consistently failed to respond to CPJ’s inquiries seeking information. During a press conference in Brussels on May 4, the day after World Press Freedom Day, in response to a question about freedom of the press in Eritrea, Afewerki asked “what freedoms those living in South African shantytowns enjoyed?” according to Agence France-Presse. In response to another question about the fate of Isaac, Afewerki asked “why Sweden was so interested in handing out passports to Eritreans,” according to AFP. Isaac was released for a medical checkup on November 19, 2005, and allowed to phone his family and a friend in Sweden. Despite hopes that he would be freed, Isaac was returned to jail two days later with no explanation, according to CPJ sources.

In February 2007, in response to news reports that Yohannes had died in prison, presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel was quoted by Voice of America as saying: “In the first place, I don’t know the person you’re talking about.” Yohannes is said to have died in detention, and his death was first reported in January 2006, according to CPJ sources. His family was not formally notified, and they were not able to recover his body for a proper burial.

Other journalists who have been held either without charge or trial or who remain in indefinite state custody as of today are editor Said Abdelkader of Admas, assistant editor Fitzum Wedi Ade, and editor-in-chief Amanuel Asrat of Zemen; journalist Saleh Aljezeeri of Eritrean State Radio, editor-in-chief Yusuf Mohamed Ali of Tsigenay; reporter Selamyinghes Beyene of Meqaleh; columnist Temesken Ghebreyesus of Keste Debena; editor-in-chief Mattewos Habteab and assistant editor Dawit Habtemichael of Meqaleh; assistant editor Medhanie Haile of Keste Debena; founder and manager Zemenfes Haile and reporter Ghebrehiwet Keleta of Tsigenay; Hamid Mohammed Said of the Eritrean State Television; and freelance photographer and former director of the Eritrean State Television Seyoum Tsehaye, according to CPJ research. Credible but unconfirmed reports in September 2006 said that Abdelkader, Ali and Haile had died in prison.

CPJ research shows that Eritrea was the world’s third leading jailer of journalists in 2006; those in custody included at least eight state media journalists who were detained for several weeks in late 2006. The government did not explain the 2006 crackdown, but sources said it was designed to intimidate state media workers after several colleagues had fled the country.

The government’s monopoly on domestic media, the fear of reprisal among prisoners’ families, and tight restrictions on the movement of all foreigners led CPJ in 2006 to name Eritrea as one of the 10 most censored countries in the world.

With freedom of thought and expression brutally suppressed in Eritrea, we are deeply concerned that the local journalists the German government is funding to train will not be able to exercise their profession within international ethical standards. We therefore call on you to use all your diplomatic influence to obtain guarantees from the Eritrean authorities that the journalists will be able to work freely and without fear of reprisal. We also call on you to insist that the Eritrean government lift its ban on the private press, that it fully account for those journalists who have died in prison, and that it to immediately release all journalists who have been jailed without charge or trial simply for exercising their right to free expression.

We thank you for your attention, and we look forward to your response.


Joel Simon
Executive Director