A decade ago Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki shut down his country’s independent press, and arrested 21 journalists and politicians. He’s detained many more of his citizens without trial since then. With no free media left to report on their fate, news of the prisoners has been hard to come by, but the ten-year anniversary of their disappearance has brought renewed calls by international NGOs for their release.
Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki may have been in power for a mere 18 years, but he could teach some of the longer-standing leaders around the continent a thing or two about running a dictatorship. Today, Eritrea is the only country in Africa not to have any free media: all the outlets belong to the government. And that’s no exaggeration, as the Committee to Protect Journalists elaborates: “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”.
Back in the 18th century Thomas Jefferson said: “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter”. But Afewerki has clearly chosen the former route for Eritrea.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1997, Aaron Berhane and Dawit Isaak founded the country’s first independent newspaper, Setit. Berhane told the CPJ last year: “At that time, the Eritrean government supported the private press by all means. We never criticised the government during that war (the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war of 1998 to 2000) because the Eritrean press law did not allow us to speak on internal affairs during wartime,” Berhane said. “The government was happy with that because we were focused on countering the Ethiopian propaganda and mobilise people to defend the country.” But these friendly relations changed with the end of the war. “Once the border conflict was over, we said we now have to look at what’s going on in the country and when we started asking tough questions, then the government became very upset,” Berhane explained.
By 2001 the country boasted eight independent newspapers. But when Setit, along with several other newspapers, published an open letter to the government, authored by 15 progressive Cabinet members calling for democratic reforms, a crackdown followed. In the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Afewerki shut down the private media, and ten journalists and 11 of the government officials who’d signed the letter were arrested. One can’t even tack on the standard phrase “on trumped-up charges” in this case, as no charges were laid, trumped-up or not.
No-one outside Eritrea has seen or heard from the imprisoned politicians and journalists since, with the only news of them coming from security guards who’ve defected from the regime. According to reports from these former prison guards, up to ten of the 21 people arrested may have subsequently died.
Last week Human Rights Watch issued a briefing calling on the government to “release the detainees or reveal their fate”. Daniel Bekele, the Africa director at HRW said: “Eritrea is effectively a giant prison, and international pressure should continue on Eritrea until President Isaias frees political prisoners and restores the rule of law. To start with, President Isaias should end the inhumanity of prolonged secret, silent detention and allow family members and international monitors to see the prisoners.”
The report came out the same week that Afewerki appeared before the UN General Assembly to speechify. “We also believe that all nations, whatever their size, can and should play an increasingly bigger and effective role in the endeavour to build a fair, just, equitable and sustainable world,” he stated. Afewerki should perhaps take a look at how he runs his own country first – including those arrested in 2001, there are currently more than 30 journalists imprisoned in Eritrea who have not even been on trial. Hardly fair, just, equitable or sustainable is it?
And it’s not only journalists suffering. As the HRW report states: “Hundreds of thousands of others in the country of five million have been victimised during the past decade. The briefing paper recounts that thousands of Eritreans are incarcerated because they are suspected of not fully supporting the regime or have attempted to flee Eritrea’s compulsory and indefinite national service.”
Writing for CPJ, Berhane (who, unlike many of his colleagues, managed to evade capture and now runs an Eritrean newspaper in Canada), implored: “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 UN to follow the leadership of the EU and other advocacy organisations 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.”
But Afewerki has been deaf to such pleas before. In 2009, when questioned specifically about the imprisonment of Isaak, who holds dual Eritrean-Swedish nationality, he stated: “We will not have any trial and we will not free him. We know how to handle his kind”. There’s a reason that Eritrea has been dubbed “Africa’s North Korea” and, sadly, it looks like Eritrea isn’t going to give up its place at the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders international press freedom index any time soon.
THERESA MALLINSON: Eritrea’s disappeared journalists, ten years later