Ten years after the author reported the government's shutdown of the private press, Eritrea continues to imprison journalists swept up in the crackdown. Among them is Dawit Isaac, a Swedish-Eritrean national whose case has drawn wide attention. (Petra Jankov Picha)
Missing journalist Dawit Isaac's brother, Esayas, began the Free Dawit campaign in 2004. (Petra Jankov Picha)

When Eritrea shut down the independent press

It was September 18, 2001. As usual, I had to do my shift as a news reader on Eritrea’s national government-controlled radio station Dimtsi Hafash. It was just minutes before 6:30 a.m. I was almost ready with all of the Tigrinya news material given to me for broadcasting and was waiting for the on-air sign to flash and the countdown to begin. Then the phone rang.

A colleague stationed behind a glass divider picked up the phone and, seconds later, signaled to me to get out of the studio and take the call. “This is crazy!” I thought. “What sort of emergency is this?” I went out and picked up the phone. “Hello. Who am I talking to?” I asked. “I am Naizghi. Who are you?” the man said in a very unfriendly tone. It was Naizghi Kiflu, the new minister of information who had not yet called a press conference to introduce himself.

“Are you the news reader on duty?” he asked me. “Yes,” I replied. “Come to the ministry’s head office as soon as possible,” he told me. “But Mr. Naizghi … on-air time is approaching and …” I couldn’t even finish my statement. He said, “Just come here!” 

I insisted. “But it would be better if I could at least begin the broadcast and do the headlines…” Naizghi interrupted me again: “Are you stupid? There is no bigger news other than what I am giving you. So come now!”

I left the studio with many thoughts rushing through my head. Has another border conflict with Eritrea erupted? But they signed the peace agreement, and we have the peacekeepers now. Could it be another war? It couldn’t be! What was going on, then?  There was the public statement made by the G-15 (a group of 15 ruling party pro-democracy dissidents) and distributed to independent papers. I had no idea what was happening out there.

I arrived in Naizghi Kiflu’s office and found him writing on a sheet of paper with Ali Abdu, the incumbent Minister of Information. “Are you the news reader on duty?” Kiflu asked. “You listen now! The paper I am giving you is very important, and you will have to read it with a forceful voice!” he said. “You have to read it properly!” he repeated–again reminding me to use force in my voice. “Let me hear how you are going to read it!”

The anger I felt must have shown on my face. I was being treated like a beginner by a man, a newcomer, who had no clue or experience in the business of the media. Ali Abdu came to my rescue, saying, “Maybe you don’t know him, but he is one of the most experienced journalists around.” “Is he?” Naizghi asked while scanning me from head to toe. I took the piece of paper from him and left the office. 

I was so impatient to read the contents of what I had been given that I was reading and running at the same time. I could see that, in addition to silencing people’s voices, the statement was about shutting down independent newspapers. It was difficult to go on-air after I arrived back at the studio–I had to calm down and collect myself.

I finally read the announcement by 7:30 a.m. and went down to the coffee room at 8 a.m.  Almost all of the staff members were there. One of them whispered, “While you were making the announcement about the shutting down of private papers, they were picking up people.” “Like who?” I asked. “Those members of parliament who signed a petition calling on [President] Isaias [Afeworki] to hold a party congress,” he replied.

There was nothing to be done. As far as the government was concerned, we were no better than those imprisoned, and it sent a clear message to all of us: “You too will get it–if you say anything!”

All was quiet. Independent papers were shut down. Voices were silenced, and hearts were dismayed. The whole situation just went from bad to worse.