Eritrea and Ethiopia: War and Words

Two years after the end of a border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, journalists in both countries are struggling to do their jobs in increasingly repressive environments.
During the recent two-year border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, security agents in both countries dissected press reports for hints of betrayal. But it was a futile exercise, because most Ethiopian and Eritrean journalists stood firmly behind their respective leaders. In fact, throughout the war, reporters on both sides “peddled hate propaganda and serious insults in newspapers, radio, and television, calling each other puppets of their respective governments,” says Nita Bhalla, the BBC correspondent in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. In Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, adds U.S. journalist Dan Connell, a longtime Eritrea expert, “the mind-set was ‘don’t wash the dirty laundry in public.'” He notes that private newspapers won respect by sending reporters out to the front lines to bring back stories that “were supportive of the war effort.”

For the two rival governments, the press was a vital tool in garnering support during the border dispute. Today, Ethiopia’s free press still survives after a decade of ever more sophisticated state repression, while Eritrea’s press has literally ceased to exist.

“It was 6 a.m. when they came to our house,” she recalls, her eyes widening in disbelief. “They were four security men with guns. They banged on the door, so my husband got up to open it. It was the last time I saw him.”

The woman was three months pregnant at the time. She has since given birth to a healthy baby girl. But her. husband, a popular editor in Asmara, has not been able to see his daughter since his arrest on September 21, 2001. “Later that day, I learned that many other journalists had also been arrested,” the woman says. In fact, at least 18 journalists are now imprisoned in Eritrea, held without charge. “Nobody knows what they have done,” says the editor’s wife.

Sipping tea in his office in Asmara, Eritrean presidential spokesperson Yermane Gebremesken steadfastly insists that some of the jailed reporters are Ethiopian agents who deserve incommunicado detention, along with a freeze on their bank accounts. “They are not in Guantanamo Bay,” he says, arguing that Eritrea’s harsh crackdown on the press is less draconian than the United States’ indefinite detention of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. “Revoking publication licenses for a while is a minor point in the long-term project of building our country. Journalists are human beings, not a special breed above the law.”

Across the border in Ethiopia, meanwhile, the official rationale for media repression is equally blunt. Deputy Justice Minister Ali Suleiman says that the private press handles “sensitive national security matters without care for the country’s interests. We know that terrorist groups like OLF [the armed separatist Oromo Liberation Front] are bankrolling newspapers.” His comments echo those of Federal Affairs Minister Gebreab Barnabas, who estimates the Ethiopian media to be “quite free”-the only problem being that “journalists are forcing our hands. There is a lot of politically motivated agitation in the press.”

The roots of war in Ethiopia and Eritrea can be traced back nearly 50 years. Eritrea had been ruled by Italy until World War II, at which time the United Kingdom took over the temporary administration of the tiny country on the Horn of Africa. Then, in 1952, the United Nations decided to federate Eritrea with its much larger and more powerful neighbor, Ethiopia. But 10 years later, Ethiopian troops invaded Eritrea and quashed its U.N.-guaranteed autonomy, leading to the emergence of an Eritrean armed resistance. Beginning in 1974, Ethiopia’s Soviet-backed government, known as the Derg (Committee), pursued the war against the Eritrean liberation movement doggedly. In May 1991, however, Eritrean rebels helped topple the Derg, and Eritrea regained full autonomy. Two years later, through a U.N.-sponsored referendum, 98 percent of Eritreans voted to secede from Ethiopia.

In the years that followed, the Eritreans began building their country. The young nation’s government, led by the revered rebel leader Isaias Afewerki, initiated ambitious development projects, securing unpaid labor through a compulsory National Service Program. But President Isaias (Eritreans and Ethiopians are known by their first names) resisted calls for open governance, and laws crafted to introduce democracy–including the liberal 1994 constitution –were never implemented. However, at the behest of Eritrea’s diaspora in the United States and Europe, Eritrea adopted a law in June 1996 that, although subscribing heavy penalties for press offenses, allowed private ownership of print media. The law opened the way for about a dozen private newspapers and magazines, which operated throughout the border war.

Since the end of the two-year border conflict in December 2000, Ethiopian and Eritrean authorities have been mixing old suspicions with fresh anti-terror rhetoric to mute alternative voices. In Ethiopia, which was Africa’s foremost jailer of journalists until recently, three reporters are now serving time for their work, while more than 40 others have fled abroad to avoid trial for alleged press offenses. The picture is even bleaker in Eritrea, where leaders banned the entire private press in September 2001. In Asmara, “after the war,” says journalist Connell, “when the press tried to exercise more freedom, the government’s response was first silence, then silencing the press.”

In the early hours of September 19, 2001, “someone came to my house and told me that journalists were being arrested,” says a young Eritrean journalist, adding that he does not want his name in print. “That person told me that police had already come twice to the paper’s office looking for the staff, and that the editor-in-chief had been arrested. I was terrified. My relatives told me they would help me flee to Sudan. But I couldn’t even bring myself to do that. I was too scared.”

The afternoon sun shines brightly on the open-air café where he sits with a group of friends around a table littered with cigarette packs and empty beer bottles. The noisy conversation around him has abated, and the waiter brings a new round of refreshments. The young man smiles nervously and puffs on his cigarette, exhaling a thick cloud of smoke. “I have to be careful,” he whispers.

Fear of government eavesdroppers runs deep in Asmara, a tidy town of Italian-built architecture dwarfed by the colorful minarets of several mosques and the steeples of imposing Orthodox Christian churches. Despite the mild July afternoon, the city’s avenues and promenades, lined with palm and fig trees, are devoid of humanity. This is because, a week earlier, the authorities ordered another geffah (a military roundup to bring young adults into the National Service Program), and soldiers were roaming the streets. Outspoken journalists were often targets of such raids. On July 25, 2001, soldiers picked up Mattewos Habteab, editor of the weekly MeQaleh, and sent him to a work camp in reprisal for his journalism.

Mattewos was freed in early September, only to be rearrested in a dawn raid on September 19, a day after the state broadcaster, the Voice of the Broad Masses of Eritrea, announced a ban on the private press. At the open-air café, the young Eritrean journalist says he was so scared that day that he “stayed under the bed at a friend’s house. But I couldn’t sleep. So after a while I resigned myself to being arrested.” To his surprise, police did not detain him when he showed up after a week in hiding, although they could do so anytime. “They know I am here. They know they can get me anytime,” he says. “But I’m not afraid anymore.”

Even so, watching one’s back has been a matter of course here since the end of the border war with Ethiopia, when a messy power struggle erupted in the ruling elite. The row, which pitted the liberal, reformist wing of the government against its conservative elements, became public in early 2000, after 13 foreign-based Eritrean academics close to the reformers sent a letter of concern to President Isaias. Leaked to the press, the letter sparked an unusual public debate on human rights and democracy.

Eritrea’s youthful press eagerly covered the politicking and printed letters from citizens who criticized Isaias, angering the president and incurring the wrath of the police, who more and more frequently jailed outspoken journalists. In the summer of 2000, the worsening climate for the press and other emerging problems prompted Setit, Eritrea’s largest and most moderate private weekly, to run an editorial calling for the implementation of the 1994 constitution, which had reasonable safeguards for basic rights, including press freedom.

“It was a pretty mild editorial, more thoughtful than bombastic, but it signaled a turning point,” says Neil Skene, a U.S. publisher who taught media workshops in Asmara during the border war. Skene recalls that the students in his October 1999 course tended toward patriotism. “Their questions reflected confidence in Eritrea’s cause, though there was also an obvious concern that the constitution and the press laws were not being followed,” he says. “By April 2001, when I last visited, most of them no longer expected much positive out of President Isaias …. And the journalists were both frightened and combative. One of them handed me his photograph for me to keep, ‘just in case.'”

By early 2001, the dispute over President Isaias’ rule had split Eritreans and their government into two feuding camps. In May 2001, fifteen prominent liberal officials sent critical letters to the president and other members of the ruling elite, forcefully stating their pro-democracy stance. Isaias dismissed the reformers’ arguments and warned his critics of severe consequences. “You are making a mistake,” read one of his replies to the reformers. “I will patiently avoid any invitation to an argument. But if by continuous provocation, you want to escalate problems by exaggerating non-existent issues, it is your choice. Again I ask you to refrain from this mistaken path and come to your senses.”

But the reformers, enjoying growing support from the press and the public, held their ground. On September 9, 2001, Setit printed an open letter to the president. It concluded by saying, “People can tolerate hunger and other problems for a long time but they cannot tolerate the absence of good administration and justice. Because they know that without these two things they cannot free themselves from hunger, disease, poverty, ignorance and war.” Isaias was furious. Days later, he struck back in a devastating clampdown on dissent, arresting 11 out of the 15 reformers, banning the press, and jailing journalists and other critics.

Meanwhile, across the disputed 600-mile (965-kilometer) border, a wasteland of scrub and cactuses, Ethiopia’s leadership also regards journalists with great distrust. Throughout its showdown with Eritrea, and in the years before that, Ethiopia jailed more journalists than any other country in Africa–a dubious distinction the country only recently shed. During the border war, the regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a soft-spoken disciplinarian, switched from charging journalists with criminal defamation to prosecuting them for breach of state security, terrorism, and “demoralizing the Army.” Nevertheless, authorities sought to bolster popular support for the military campaign by releasing jailed reporters at the onset of the conflict. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) 1999 report on Ethiopia, for example, found that in early 1998 “about two dozen journalists were in prison, many for criticizing the government’s close relationship with Eritrea. But that number dropped by about half after the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea erupted in May 1998.”

The root cause of the border war was Ethiopia’s “ethnic federalism,” which introduced into Ethiopia’s constitution the right of ethnic groups, or “nationalities,” to secede and also facilitated Eritrea’s 1991 breakaway from Ethiopia. At first, journalists wrote positively about ethnic federalism because they felt it addressed serious nationality problems. But after Eritrea’s formal declaration of independence in 1993 (prior to Eritrea’s secession, Ethiopia was made up of 10 provinces that consisted of more than 80 ethnic groups), many Ethiopian journalists began to criticize the government’s resistance to secessionist demands by other provinces.

As Dr. Mekonen Bishaw, head of the nongovernmental Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, puts it, “No other social group has suffered more systematic and massive abuse as have independent journalists. They have been paying an exceedingly high price for advocating against ethnic federalism.” One reporter who suffered tragic consequences for his commitment to secessionist demands by the Amharas, an ethnic group that makes up 20 percent of Ethiopia’s 50 million people, was Mekonen Worku. On January 26, 2000, a police squad found Mekonen, a reporter for the weekly tabloid Maebel, at his home in Addis Ababa, his clothes soaked with sweat, his neck broken by a noose fastened to the ceiling of the mud-walled studio. A week earlier, he had left the city’s central police station after two months behind bars. At 25, Mekonen had spent a total of three years in jail for his reporting about the government’s handling of tensions with the Amharas. In each of his court convictions, authorities stated that his writing lacked patriotism, incited people to ethnic violence, and demoralized the army.

Mekonen left no suicide note, but many sources say that the day before he hanged himself, the judge in charge of Mekonen’s case had inexplicably annulled his bail posting and had ordered police to detain him. The journalist’s former colleagues at Maebel are certain that the prison stints for his reporting on the Amharas played a role in his fate. They point to the 40-odd Amhara reporters and media workers who fled abroad between 1997 and 2001 to avoid trial. During that same period, Ethiopia jailed at least 50 reporters, according to CPJ data. Charges included incitement of ethnic hatred and demoralizing the army, as well as terrorism and criminal defamation. Ethiopian officials deny that their treatment of the press has been heavy-handed. In fact, Information Minister Bereket Simon calls the self-exiled group of media workers “traitors.” Bereket says the private press is “obsessed with politics” and writes only “negative things about the government.” Like other officials, he has little doubt that hostile domestic and foreign forces are bankrolling some private newspapers.

Curiously, as Ethiopia’s war against its former province Eritrea wound down, Prime Minister Meles announced that he was abandoning ethnic federalism for “revolutionary democracy.” The difference between the two policies is unclear, and journalists contend that the change is only cosmetic since the constitution remains the same.

Today, Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders say they are working hard on new press laws that would curb foreign or “terrorist” funding of the local press. In Asmara, presidential spokesperson Yermane says that “nobody can take away freedom of expression, because that’s a constitutional right.” But the constitution was never implemented, and journalists who complained about the status quo were jailed or sent to work camps to complete the National Service Program. Yermane says journalists received that treatment because “you can’t simply defame a person on the grounds that they are a public figure.”

Ethiopia’s information minister, Bereket, would agree with that. He is currently helping to “reform” the Ethiopian the 1992 press code of ethics for all without training,” harm than good to about the government’s create proxy private People’s Liberation in the ruling sources, the TPLF of the Region Corporation, a Minister Meles. Center, a the only private broadcaster in a country whose leaders have consistently refused to free the airwaves.

Because of their privileged connections to the ruling elite, executives at Walta and Radio Faana say their hands are tied. An official at Walta complains that, “It’s not easy to be this close to the ruling party. It is a dilemma, seen from our journalists’ perspective. We are not handling the issues the way they deserve.” The official says he deplores the state’s treatment of the private press, which often does a better job than the official media. “But we can’t say that loud,” he adds ruefully.

Meanwhile, a United Nation’s peacekeeping mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia and the rest of the international community have said little or nothing about the crackdown on the media. At a press conference this summer in Addis Ababa, Legweila Joseph Legweila, chief of the information office of the peacekeeping mission, said he feels “sorry for the repression of journalists in Eritrea and Ethiopia, but protecting free press is not part of the mission’s mandate.”

Back in Asmara, that’s not what the Eritrean woman whose imprisoned husband has yet to see his little girl wants to hear. For her, hope is fading fast. Unable to afford the rent, she was evicted from her house and now lives with her parents. “At first I thought my husband would be interrogated for a few hours,” she says, the tears welling up in her eyes. “Then I began to think it would last just a few days. But it’s been a year now and he and the other journalists are still in jail.”

Yves Sorokobi is CPJ program coordinator for Africa. This article is based on a summer 2002 fact-finding mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia with CPJ Washington, D.C., representative Frank Smyth and board member Josh Friedman.