A 2001 edition of Meqaleh. (CPJ)
A 2001 edition of Meqaleh. (CPJ)

Press, politics at center of Eritrean mock trial

Articles published in Eritrea’s now-banned private newspapers are at the center of a mock political trial being filmed as an educational documentary this week at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. Inside a courtroom on the sprawling Tempe, Ariz., campus, a judge of the High Court of Eritrea presides dispassionately, international observers lean into translation headphones, and defense lawyers challenge prosecutors to detail the vague antistate charges against 11 political dissidents. It’s a trial that the real defendants were never afforded when they were jailed nearly eight years ago.

Clues to the “crimes” on trial here can be found in a stack of Tigrigna-language clippings from newspapers that were eventually shut by the government in fall 2001. With titles including Setit, Meqaleh (“Echo”), Keste Debena (“Rainbow”), and Admas (“Horizon”), they are relics of the once-vibrant private press in Africa’s youngest nation. The May 24, 2001, edition of Meqaleh evoked in just five words the now-shattered hopes of the period: “Free press for national progress.” 

Beginning in 2000, private newspapers that had not previously questioned the policies of President Isaias Afewerki became more assertive following a split in the ruling elite, explained Simon Weldehaimanot, one of two Eritrean human rights lawyers behind the documentary project. The split pitted loyal supporters of Afewerki, the former guerilla leader, against reformers, including the 11 on trial here.

“The fact that a significant portion of the once-unified ruling party publicly dissented with the government emboldened the private press,” Weldehaimanot said. In fact, many of the dissidents gave interviews and wrote newspaper columns critical of the government. For instance, in its August 10, 2001 edition, Setit reports the dismissal of the president of the High Court of Asmara after he accused the government of interfering with the judiciary.

“It was an unprecedented battle of ideas being communicated via the newspapers, and that’s why we use these newspapers to reflect on that time,” Weldehaimanot said. The published statements are referenced throughout the proceedings to document a timeline of political developments and as articles of evidence.

The private press coverage of this national debate earned the papers popularity with Eritrean readers, according to Weldehaimanot, a university student at the time. “Wherever you used to go, you used to see people reading. By 10 a.m., all the papers were gone. But people were so kind, they would either hand you their copy or photocopy it for you.” 

But editorials questioning the government’s policies or airing dissenting opinions, such as one in the July 26, 2001, edition of Meqaleh, which called on the government to review its policy on conscription of journalists into national service, drew increasingly harsh government responses. Meqaleh Editor Mattewos Habteab was detained just a few days after the publication of the editorial and was held incommunicado for four weeks. He was re-arrested in September 2001 and is, to this day, one of at least 13 journalists thought to remain in secret prisons without charge or trial in Eritrea, Africa’s leading jailer of journalists.

Semere Kesete, a close friend of Habteab and a lawyer co-directing the film, was once a contributor to Meqaleh and Setit. He published several critical analyses of executive excesses in the Eritrean legal system–until he became the story, as evidenced by an article in an August 10, 2001, edition of Setit. The story, headlined “Asmara University Student Union president not yet charged,” refers to Kesete’s arrest after he criticized government interference in academic affairs during a graduation speech. Worse, when a judge ordered his release after the state prosecutor failed to formulate charges, police threw him into prison and summarily arrested some 3,000 students on the courthouse grounds. Kesete later escaped from prison after a year of solitary confinement.

The Eritrean government’s disregard for due process is illustrated in presidential rhetoric. Commenting on the case of imprisoned journalist Dawit Isaac, the president declared: “We don’t take [him] to trial. We know how to deal with him and others like him and we have our own ways of dealing with that.”

This film, to be called “Hear the Other Side,” is a perfect response. The producers hope to release the documentary by September, the anniversary of the government’s roundup of dissidents and journalists. Plans for the release are still in the works, although the producers hope to arrange screenings and distribute online. The law school, which Kesete now attends, is providing courtroom space and editing facilities.

(Reporting from Tempe, Ariz.)