Attacks on the Press 2007: Eritrea

Eritrea remained the leading jailer of journalists in Africa, with as many as 14 writers and editors held incommunicado in secret locations. At least one journalist died in state custody, sources told CPJ in February. The only country in sub-Saharan Africa without a single independent news outlet, Eritrea subjected its own state-media journalists to government surveillance and harassment. One state journalist died in June while trying to escape years of repression by fleeing into Sudan.

President Isaias Afewerki continued the brutally repressive policies that began a week after September 11, 2001, when the government effectively shuttered the nation’s once-vigorous private press and arrested its most prominent journalists. The crackdown came shortly after the press covered a split in the ruling party, providing a forum for debate on Afewerki’s rule.

The government, dominated by members of Afewerki’s Popular Front for Democracy and Justice, refused to disclose the whereabouts, legal status, and health of the jailed journalists.

Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, a publisher and editor of the now-defunct weekly Setit and 2002 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, died in prison, according to several sources in the Eritrean diaspora. Yohannes, who was also a poet and playwright, had fought alongside Afewerki as a member of the rebel movement that sought Eritrean independence. Several sources said Yohannes died on January 11 after a long illness in an undisclosed prison outside Asmara, although one source said the journalist may have died much earlier in a prison in Embatkala, 21 miles (35 kilometers) northeast of Asmara. Information Minister Ali Abdu told CPJ in June that he had nothing to say about Yohannes. “I don’t know,” he said. “This is an Eritrean issue; leave it to us.”

The government’s monopoly on domestic media, the fear of reprisal among prisoners’ families, and restrictions on the movements of foreigners have made it extremely difficult to verify unofficial information. An unbylined 2006 report that was circulated on several Web sites and considered credible by CPJ sources claimed that three other journalists also died in government custody. Abdu said he had no information on the fates of Said Abdelkader, Medhanie Haile, and Yusuf Mohamed Ali. CPJ continued to list them on its annual prison census as it investigated their cases.

The government did confirm the death of Paulos Kidane, a sports broadcaster for state-run Eri-TV and a journalist for other state media outlets. Tormented by ongoing intimidation from his own employer, Kidane joined a group of seven asylum seekers who set off on foot to cross the border into Sudan, several sources told CPJ for a special report released in October. His companions were forced to leave him in the care of villagers in northwest Eritrea after the journalist collapsed from seven days of walking in temperatures of more than 100 degrees, according to a woman who traveled with Kidane. The village was believed to be populated by government informants.

Kidane had been among nine state journalists detained for several weeks in late 2006. The detainees included five Eri-TV reporters, three journalists with state broadcaster Radio Dimtsi Hafash, and one reporter from the state-owned Eritrea News Agency.

The arrests, which followed the defection of several veteran state journalists, appeared to be sheer intimidation. Kidane and the others were held on suspicion of staying in contact with the defectors or planning to flee the country themselves.

At least 19 journalists have fled Eritrea since 2002 in response to threats, harassment, and imprisonment—among the highest totals worldwide, according to a CPJ special report issued in June. Fleeing the country is an extreme option, since the families of exiled journalists are targeted with government reprisals, according to local journalists.

The government continued to raise the specter of Ethiopian aggression to justify its absolute control over the media.

“The government had in fact no intention of preventing the free press from growing,” presidential spokesman Yemane Ghebremeskel said in a July interview on the pro-government Web site Shaebia. But he also stated: “What is the normative practice in war times? I don’t believe that there is free press without any curtailment, all the time, anywhere, in times of war and conflict.”

Journalists told CPJ that professional life in Asmara is dominated by the country’s tense stalemate over its border with Ethiopia. After the 1998-2000 conflict that claimed an estimated 80,000 lives, the nation remained on war footing, with about one in 20 Eritreans serving in its armed forces, according to U.N. figures.

An intensifying split with the West contributed to the poor press climate. Although U.S. President Bill Clinton once praised Afewerki as a “renaissance leader,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer said in September that Eritrea was a potential rogue state. Afewerki, for his part, argued that U.S. foreign policy had fueled conflict in the Horn of Africa, pointing to Washington’s support for Ethiopia’s 2006 intervention in Somalia.

Only five international media outlets had Asmara-based correspondents in 2007: Agence France-Presse, Reuters, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and the U.S. government-funded Voice of America. Afewerki’s administration intermittently blocked foreign-based private radio stations that sought to send their signals into the country.

Anti-Western sentiments often accompanied acts of repression. Spokesman Ghebremeskel claimed Eritrea’s once-thriving free press was largely funded by Western countries, and was easily manipulated “to serve ulterior purposes.” Afewerki went even further in an October Los Angeles Times interview, calling jailed political opponents and journalists “crooks who have been bought. They provided themselves to serve something contrary to the national interest of this country. They are degenerates. I don’t take [the jailings as] a serious matter.”