Eritrean Prisoners: Slipping From Sight

By Alexis Arieff

Their jailed colleagues vanishing in secret prisons, exiled Eritrean journalists seek to bring attention.

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Khaled Abdu, once the top editor of Admas, a private weekly in Eritrea, fled his homeland in 2000 after getting a series of threats from government agents. He was one of the lucky ones, as it turned out. In a massive crackdown in September 2001, the government rounded up and jailed many of Eritrea’s most prominent journalists and closed down all of the country’s private news outlets.

The fate of those jailed journalists has become ever more precarious as this nation along the Red Sea has grown increasingly isolated. Abdu and several colleagues, believing they might be the best way to draw international attention to their imprisoned colleagues, have launched an association of journalists in exile to report on the cases.

At least 13 journalists are behind bars in Eritrea, with two more enduring prolonged forced labor euphemistically called “national service.” These grim statistics have made Eritrea one of the world’s five biggest jailers of journalists for five consecutive years, according to CPJ research. The imprisoned journalists have not been formally charged. Eritrean authorities have refused to discuss their whereabouts, the conditions of their imprisonment, or the precise nature of the allegations against them.

In a CPJ interview, presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel denied that the journalists were imprisoned because of what they wrote, saying only that they “were involved in acts against the national interest of the state.” He said “the substance of the case is clear to everybody” but declined to detail any supporting evidence.

“We feel like they are being forgotten,” said Abdu, whose Admas colleague, Said Abdelkader, is among those imprisoned. “Unless we address what happened, the outside world cannot do more.”

Neither the Red Cross nor family members are allowed to visit the jailed reporters, making it difficult to determine the journalists’ health and, in some cases, whether they are alive. What little information can be gleaned trickles out through members of the exile community. In 2002, for example, several journalists who escaped the country alerted CPJ that nine imprisoned journalists had been moved from police cells in the capital, Asmara, to secret detention facilities after they attempted a hunger strike.

The newly inaugurated Association of Eritrean Journalists in Exile (AEJE) plans to disseminate information about the jailed journalists and other media-related issues affecting Eritrea. The association has launched a Web site,, and its members stay connected through an e-mail listserv.

“We want to advocate for our colleagues who are in jail,” said Aaron Berhane, a founding editor of a banned private newspaper, Setit, who now lives in Toronto. “We want to record their history, the work that they have done, to bring their issue to the public.” Two of Berhane’s former co-workers are among those behind bars, including Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, a 2002 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award. Berhane escaped prison by going into hiding, then fleeing to Sudan.

Several exiled journalists told CPJ that they struggle with a sense of survivor’s guilt that they made it out of Eritrea, while others did not. They left behind not only those who were arrested, but also family members and friends who struggle with the daily hardship of living in one of the world’s poorest and most repressive countries.

“Our major task is to address the human rights violations in Eritrea … and to prepare ourselves for Eritrea to have a free and independent media,” Abdu said. AEJE’s two dozen members live around the world, primarily in Canada, the United States, and, like Abdu, in Sweden. They receive information from covert networks that include friendly government employees and security agents. AEJE’s membership counts former journalists from private newspapers, former state media employees, and diaspora Eritreans who have become involved in media in their adopted countries.

Eritrea gained full independence from Ethiopia in 1993, after Eritrean and Ethiopian guerrilla fighters overthrew a ruthless military regime that had ruled over both territories. Journalism enjoyed a brief heyday in the ensuing years. The nation’s first private newspapers were started in Asmara amid widespread optimism over the country’s future. “We never dreamt of going out of Eritrea,” recalled Abdu, who helped found Admas during that time.

While initially supportive of the revolutionary government, Eritrea’s young journalists soon began to question increasingly autocratic government policies and to press for democratic reform. A backlash followed. Neil Skene, an American journalist who led U.S. State Department-backed training seminars for journalists in Asmara between 1999 and 2001, said a turning point came in 2000, when security forces briefly arrested several journalists, releasing them with warnings to tread carefully. “You could see the demise of democracy,” he told CPJ. “These guys without any history of democracy, suddenly they don’t have any idea how to handle dissent.”

On September 18, 2001, with world attention focused on the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Eritrean government banned the private press for allegedly threatening state security and “jeopardizing national unity.” About a dozen independent journalists were rounded up by security forces, and, with the press out of business, the government canceled a general election. Hundreds of purported government opponents have since been jailed without due process.

The irony of Eritrea’s bleak situation is that international media coverage has decreased as the political and humanitarian situation has worsened. While information flows more quickly and freely in much of Africa today, Eritrea has gone the other direction. It has expelled international aid organizations, United Nations-backed monitors, and a foreign journalist who worked for Reuters and the BBC.

To succeed, the AEJE must overcome fear and division that have kept many members of the diaspora from criticizing the government. Tesfaldet A. Meharenna, an Eritrean living in the United States who founded the popular Web site Asmarino, said it has not been easy to mobilize an outcry on human rights issues, partly because some exiled Eritreans fear that family members back home could be targeted. “The government works hard to play on that fear,” he told CPJ.

Others keep quiet out of pride and a sense of solidarity. There is “a kind of shared belief on the part of many that they’re a little country under siege from a hostile world, and they can never say anything that’s going to make it look bad,” said Dan Connell, a U.S. journalist who has written several books on Eritrea.

The AEJE’s mission is made more difficult, too, by President Isaias Afewerki’s legendary capriciousness and disdain for international opinion. One heartrending scenario unfolded in November 2005, when the government briefly released Dawit Isaac of Setit, only to re-arrest him two days later, after he phoned his wife to tell her he’d been freed. Isaac holds dual Eritrean and Swedish citizenship, and his brief release came after behind-the-scenes lobbying by the Swedish government. Some observers speculated that Isaac’s re-arrest stemmed from the attention given his release.

“We should have all kept quiet,” Meharenna said ruefully. Then, seeming to correct himself, he added: “See, that’s what they want you to do.”

The AEJE’s struggle is, in many ways, a battle against hopelessness. Abdu said he understands the fear and conflicted sentiments among the exiled community. “But we must go beyond that,” he said. “We have to feel like every Eritrean is our family.”

Alexis Arieff is a freelance writer and former senior research associate for CPJ’s Africa program.