Since Zaid Tewelde’s husband, an Eritrean freedom fighter turned playwright and journalist, was arrested in September 2001, she has spent each passing day coping with the burning questions of her two young sons, age 9 and 10, “Where is my dad? When are we going to see him?” And she is not alone. Like Zaid, the wives of journalists Seyoum Tsehaye, Dawit Isaac, Yusuf Mohamed Ali, and Temesghen Ghebreyesus, among others, have endured the same haunting questions 365 days a year for a decade.
Zaid’s husband, Fessehaye Yohannes, better known as Joshua, reportedly died in a secret prison in Eritrea where he was held incommunicado without charge with Seyoum, Dawit, Yusuf, Temesghen, and six other journalists, along with a dozen ruling party reformers.
September 11, 2001, changed everything in Eritrea. While the whole world’s attention was turned toward the horrific terrorist attacks on the United States, President Isaias Afewerki seized an opportunity he badly wanted: He was able to justify crushing the independent press and destroying any potential opposition with vague, unproven assertions of conspiracy. He banned all independent press and arrested ruling party Reformists (G-15) on September 18.
Immediately after the arrests of journalists and political dissidents, many people were arrested simply because they had good relationships with the G-15, the leading journalists, or others perceived as a threat. The spirit of public debate or even discussion was stifled with the closure of all independent papers. The country was shrouded in fear.
No independent press is now functioning in Eritrea. There are three newspapers, three radio stations, and two television stations in the country. All of them are owned, operated, and controlled by the government, functioning under the tight umbrella of the Ministry of Information. They serve the regime, not the people. The government uses these media outlets as propaganda tools and forces the staff to write or broadcast what the propagandists want, not what the journalists observe. As a result of this oppressive environment, an endless number of journalists, strengthened by their conscience, continue to flee the country.
Also fleeing are relatives of imprisoned journalists. Zaid Tewelde and her children, braving border guards and the hardships of refugee life in Sudan and then Uganda, landed in the United States. “Despite border guards’ shoot-to-kill orders, the exodus persists. Over 222,000 Eritreans (almost five percent of the population) had fled the country as of January 2011,” according to a Human Rights Watch report released today.
Currently, about 50 journalists are living in exile. Some of them managed to start publications and radio stations in their new countries–Meftih in Canada, Selam in Houston, and Natna in Norway. Radio Assenna, Meselna Delina, Erena, and a number of local radio stations have been doing their best to counter the propaganda of the Afewerki regime. Shamefully, the Eritrean government employs a long international arm of terror and vandalism to weaken its critics wherever they are. The website of Assenna was attacked several times; the author of this article had his car window broken and his tire flattened by supporters of the regime. The editor of Selam, Tedros Menghistu, was beaten.
My dream–one shared by thousands of journalists and political activists all over the world–is this: Free the imprisoned journalists. Reunite them with their families so they are able to hug their wives and lovely children. Let’s take action to encourage the United Nations to follow the leadership of the European Union and other advocacy organizations in calling for the release of the prisoners. Let’s take action to support the journalists and their families. Let’s lift the shroud of misery and make this year the last anniversary of despair and the first anniversary of joy.