Press, politics at center of Eritrean mock trial

By Mohamed Hassim Keita/Africa Research Associate on July 2, 2009 5:01 PM ET

A 2001 edition of Meqaleh. (CPJ)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.)


please leave us alone CPJ. we like our leader isaias afewerki. he is our hero. we don't need any press or private media. we are happy with the government newspapers.
private newspapers only hurt the unity of country. do you want to see us in bloodshed like in ethiopia and kenya??
to see a good EXAMPLE, just look down to ethiopia which reportedly has 10-20 private newpapers who are dividing the country and helping bloodshed, hate, fighting, negative politics, rebels, anti-tolerant groups etc. as expected the midget meles zenawi cracks down on the private media.

we don't want what is happening in ethiopia to happen in eritrea!!!

our country wants peace and UNITY. if you go to the streets of eritrea, you will see how our country is the MOST PEACEFUL AND SAFE COUNTRY IN AFRICA!!

leave us alone!!!!

Excellent piece, Mohamed. You are really connecting us with the activities going on out of our reach. I am glad to hear such an excellent progress is going on in documenting the situation of the Eritrea's free press challenge. I can't wait to see this documentary film.
Keep it up

You are right Saleh Eritrea is the most peaceful country in the world as long as you are not living there and you don't have any family member who is paying the seems eternal punshiment. May the lives of poor young productive Eritrean who have been kept hostage for the past 15 year be your life and your relatives to come. For those of us who seek peace, justice, unity and democracy may Almight God deliever us.

mohamed has to be a crooked man i would advice him first to visit our beloved country Eritrea and see the situation for him self and judge rather than judge form outside. Eritrea is amodel country for all africans who kill each other in the streets like animals. Our country Eritrea is the MOST PEACEFUL country in the world. even american does'nt have the peace we have. in american people get killed in the streets like cats but in eritrea you can walk peacefully in the streets with out no fear. so i would like to invite the croocked mohamed to come and visit eritrea.

I pray for eritrea and eritreans that allmighty god will give its blessing and mercy. That its leaders and people get happiness and tranquility as well as long life and harmony among themselfs.when i see the stuation in Eroupe the way my fellows are behaving makes me to think a lot.may our heavenly father give us more wisdom and protect us from evil thinking and deeds.

abdul razak razak July 4, 2009 3:53:46 PM ET

Thanks Mohamed for the information that we can't access. I want to say this to Saleh " wakeup from the denial". The goverment had feed you all the unity crap for so long while you are blind to see what is going on. Having free press opens doors to alot of discussion and development. It has been almost 19 years since independence guess what the country is free but people don't have freedom even for the basic human rights. Everybody did sacrifice for the country but this goverment treating the people like a prisoners in everything. No development could come from that. FREEDOM FOR THE PEOPLE BUT IF IT IS ONLY FOR THE LAND WHY BOTHER FOR INDEPENDENCE

Please stop intervention in our free nation eritrea, we don`t like human right organization to advocate for us,(LIKE CPJ, REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS, AND OTHERS) we TRUST our leader president Isaias Afewerki than anyone in the world, he is the hero, to bring us to reach up to here.We don`t need anyone from westerners, and easterners or any other to be on behave of eritreans, we know well what we have passed during the 30 years of struggle, and the border conflict with Ethiopia and also what the role of the westerners to smash and kneeldown Eritreans was. In eritrea, there is PEACE, STABILITY, AND DEVELOPMENT than ever.So, on this occasion I would like to call CPJ and others to stop such an evil campaign againt the people, government, and generally the nation Eritrea. Thankyou!

I thought Eritrea got her ‘freedom’ from Ethiopia and declared its independence 15 plus years ago after three decade of fighting, what happened to go back to square one again?
Sometimes I wonder about liberation movement in Africa, it seems a recycling of tyrants, prisoners and refugees over and over again.
The other fellow who loves it the way it is must be waiting for his tern to be in jail or refugee in the next cycle. It is like doing eating dog.

Well it is unbelievable some ppl like Saleh think we have a peacful country.....that tells us either Saleh is retarded or in total denial.
Thanks a lot Mohammed for your effort and keep it up. You are full filling a moral obligation. Please do not be bothered by untruthful comments like Saleh's or who so ever....those are people with no soul and may God have mercy on them.
God bless Eritrea!

Thanks Mohamed,

This is really a very significant initiative. Thank you for the contunious effort you are making to highlight the gravity of the press situation in Eritrea.


This is a good insight, but the problem is it makes certain people jump out of the skin out of happiness. Its something that makes the enemies of Eritrea happy and gives them all the reason to attack them in the future. All of those you commented on this article to the extreme are showing that. Eritrea is doing its best to keep outside influence, because once the let them in its ruined for good. All these BS of democracy and freedom that westerns claim isnt true. They are only made to believe and dont have it. Eritea is one of the African country and few in the world that is brave enought to stand up to the black sneaks, and now they will do anything to make them look bad and accuse them of wrong doings..

When the time comes you will all chew yor tounges i am sure.Eritrea,God forsaken land.I always think why is the PFDJ cannot rule the three million people.I am sure they will burn in hell.But those of you who are speaking in favour of them,History is recording and you will be punished when the time comes.Look at the mothers,look at the youngsters,look at the teenages who are dyind in prison camps.WHY?

It is very important to know and understand the background to the story of the "dissenting" government officials that had decided to use the "free press" in their attempt to disseminate their ideas and shore up support. Although, this "independent" papers were their only option to express themselves, by attaching themselves to these papers (to the extent of writing "newspaper columns critical of the government" that they were part of and in fact were very visible leaders of until a few months before their "dissent") they were about to take the papers down with them. The extent of "co-operation" between the dissenters and the "independent" papers and its effect on the idea of having "free press" in Eritrea will be felt for years to come. So, knowing how the movement of the "dissenters" formed and what it had tried to achieve before it actually went public and started airing its grievances in these "independent" papers is quite important. In short the dissenters were too toxic for such new papers. Given their infancy state, the papers were not ready to handle such a sudden surge of "new activities" objectively and independently which earned them the wrath of the government. Very few live to tell about their attempts to change a president or a government in Africa unless they succeed in that endeavor first. The dissenters in a way came to the free press after such a failed endeavor and it was a matter of time before they were taken away. Frankly the government was slow to act, whether that was a calculated move or a stunned delayed reaction nobody can be sure of.

In summary, after a failed peaceful coup, the dissenters wanted to use the papers for their own ends, and there by taking down the fledgling papers with them. One can't help but wish that the papers had kept some semblance of distance from dissenters.


Social Media

View All ›