In bid to flee homeland, an Eritrean broadcaster dies

New York, July 10, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists mourns the loss of respected Eritrean broadcaster Paulos Kidane who, CPJ sources said, died after attempting to join the dozens of journalists fleeing the government’s absolute control of the country’s media since a massive crackdown on the now-defunct private press.

Kidane, a presenter with the Amharic service of state broadcaster Eri-TV and state Radio Dimtsi Hafash (Voice of the Broad Masses), was among a group of seven Eritreans who set off on foot to Sudan on or about June 10 in a bid to leave their homeland, according to several independent sources who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from the Eritrean government. Kidane was the only known journalist in the group.

Kidane, who suffered from epilepsy and high blood pressure, was not able to complete the long trek and stayed behind to rest in a remote part of northwestern Eritrea, according to the same sources. Two independent sources told CPJ that the Eritrean Information Ministry later issued an internal announcement stating that Kidane had died and asserting that his death was “accidental.”

The internal announcement did not detail the circumstances of his death. CPJ sources said it was not clear whether Kidane died in the custody of Eritrean security forces. Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu did not return CPJ’s calls this week seeking comment and further information.

“We are deeply saddened by reports that Paulos Kidane died while trying to escape the crushing repression of the media in Eritrea. We send our condolences to his family and friends,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “At a minimum, the Eritrean government is responsible for creating the stifling conditions that drove Paulos Kidane to attempt to flee the country on foot.”

Kidane, believed to be in his mid to late 30s, was among at least nine other state media journalists jailed for several weeks last November without charge, according to CPJ research. Several of the journalists were beaten to reveal the passwords to their e-mail accounts, according to CPJ sources.

Born in Ethiopia, Kidane started his journalism career as a freelance sports writer in the mid-1990s, a close friend told CPJ. In 1999, he was deported to Eritrea in the aftermath of the border war between the two countries. He subsequently worked as a news and sports editor for the private weekly Hadas Admas before the government shuttered the private press in 2001.

Kidane’s command of Amharic landed him the roles of Ethiopian military figures in several state-sponsored historical films. He is survived by a wife and a son.

Eritrea was the world’s third leading jailer of journalists in 2006, according to CPJ research, with more than a dozen publishers and editors held incommunicado without charge and trial since September 2001. 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.

In June, CPJ reported that 243 journalists worldwide have fled their native countries since 2002 in response to threats, harassment, and imprisonment. At least 19 of them fled Eritrea, the third highest number worldwide.