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Attacks on the Press in 2007 - Eritrea

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2008
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2007 - Eritrea, February 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c56771c.html [accessed 23 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Eritrea remained the leading jailer of journalists in Africa, with as many as 14 writers and editors held incommunicado in secret locations. At least one journalist died in state custody, sources told CPJ in February. The only country in sub-Saharan Africa without a single independent news outlet, Eritrea subjected its own state-media journalists to government surveillance and harassment. One state journalist died in June while trying to escape years of repression by fleeing into Sudan.

President Isaias Afewerki continued the brutally repressive policies that began a week after September 11, 2001, when the government effectively shuttered the nation's once-vigorous private press and arrested its most prominent journalists. The crackdown came shortly after the press covered a split in the ruling party, providing a forum for debate on Afewerki's rule.

The government, dominated by members of Afewerki's Popular Front for Democracy and Justice, refused to disclose the whereabouts, legal status, and health of the jailed journalists.

Fesshaye "Joshua" Yohannes, a publisher and editor of the now-defunct weekly Setit and 2002 recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award, died in prison, according to several sources in the Eritrean diaspora. Yohannes, who was also a poet and playwright, had fought alongside Afewerki as a member of the rebel movement that sought Eritrean independence. Several sources said Yohannes died on January 11 after a long illness in an undisclosed prison outside Asmara, although one source said the journalist may have died much earlier in a prison in Embatkala, 21 miles (35 kilometers) northeast of Asmara. Information Minister Ali Abdu told CPJ in June that he had nothing to say about Yohannes. "I don't know," he said. "This is an Eritrean issue; leave it to us."

The government's monopoly on domestic media, the fear of reprisal among prisoners' families, and restrictions on the movements of foreigners have made it extremely difficult to verify unofficial information. An unbylined 2006 report that was circulated on several Web sites and considered credible by CPJ sources claimed that three other journalists also died in government custody. Abdu said he had no information on the fates of Said Abdelkader, Medhanie Haile, and Yusuf Mohamed Ali. CPJ continued to list them on its annual prison census as it investigated their cases.

The government did confirm the death of Paulos Kidane, a sports broadcaster for state-run Eri-TV and a journalist for other state media outlets. Tormented by ongoing intimidation from his own employer, Kidane joined a group of seven asylum seekers who set off on foot to cross the border into Sudan, several sources told CPJ for a special report released in October. His companions were forced to leave him in the care of villagers in northwest Eritrea after the journalist collapsed from seven days of walking in temperatures of more than 100 degrees, according to a woman who traveled with Kidane. The village was believed to be populated by government informants.

Kidane had been among nine state journalists detained for several weeks in late 2006. The detainees included five Eri-TV reporters, three journalists with state broadcaster Radio Dimtsi Hafash, and one reporter from the state-owned Eritrea News Agency.

The arrests, which followed the defection of several veteran state journalists, appeared to be sheer intimidation. Kidane and the others were held on suspicion of staying in contact with the defectors or planning to flee the country themselves.

At least 19 journalists have fled Eritrea since 2002 in response to threats, harassment, and imprisonment – among the highest totals worldwide, according to a CPJ special report issued in June. Fleeing the country is an extreme option, since the families of exiled journalists are targeted with government reprisals, according to local journalists.

The government continued to raise the specter of Ethiopian aggression to justify its absolute control over the media.

"The government had in fact no intention of preventing the free press from growing," presidential spokesman Yemane Ghebremeskel said in a July interview on the pro-government Web site Shaebia. But he also stated: "What is the normative practice in war times? I don't believe that there is free press without any curtailment, all the time, anywhere, in times of war and conflict."

Journalists told CPJ that professional life in Asmara is dominated by the country's tense stalemate over its border with Ethiopia. After the 1998-2000 conflict that claimed an estimated 80,000 lives, the nation remained on war footing, with about one in 20 Eritreans serving in its armed forces, according to U.N. figures.

An intensifying split with the West contributed to the poor press climate. Although U.S. President Bill Clinton once praised Afewerki as a "renaissance leader," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer said in September that Eritrea was a potential rogue state. Afewerki, for his part, argued that U.S. foreign policy had fueled conflict in the Horn of Africa, pointing to Washington's support for Ethiopia's 2006 intervention in Somalia.

Only five international media outlets had Asmara-based correspondents in 2007: Agence France-Presse, Reuters, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and the U.S. government-funded Voice of America. Afewerki's administration intermittently blocked foreign-based private radio stations that sought to send their signals into the country.

Anti-Western sentiments often accompanied acts of repression. Spokesman Ghebremeskel claimed Eritrea's once-thriving free press was largely funded by Western countries, and was easily manipulated "to serve ulterior purposes." Afewerki went even further in an October Los Angeles Times interview, calling jailed political opponents and journalists "crooks who have been bought. They provided themselves to serve something contrary to the national interest of this country. They are degenerates. I don't take [the jailings as] a serious matter."


Journalists killed in 2007 in Eritrea

Fesshaye "Joshua" Yohannes, Setit
Date unknown (death disclosed February 2007), location unknown

Yohannes, a publisher and editor of the defunct weekly Setit and a recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award in 2002, died in prison, several sources in the Eritrean diaspora disclosed to CPJ in February 2007. Yohannes was among 10 independent journalists rounded up in a massive 2001 government crackdown that shuttered the nation's private press.

Several sources said Yohannes died on January 11, 2007, after a long illness in an undisclosed prison outside Asmara; one source said the journalist may have died much earlier in a prison in Embatkala, 21 miles (35 kilometers) northeast of Asmara.

In a June 2007 interview, Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu told CPJ that he had nothing to say about Yohannes. "I don't know," he said. "This is an Eritrean issue; leave it to us. I have nothing to say."

Yohannes went by the name of "Joshua" among family and friends. Formerly a member of the guerrilla movement fighting for Eritrean independence from neighboring Ethiopia, he turned to journalism when Eritrea became a state in 1993. In November 1997, he joined Setit as co-owner and board member, a former colleague told CPJ. He became a popular writer, and Setit grew into the nation's largest-circulation newspaper.

Setit's staff tackled tough issues in the young nation, including poverty, prostitution, and Eritrea's lack of infrastructure for handicapped veterans of the 30-year independence struggle. The weekly's criticism angered the government, and by May 2001, Yohannes asked CPJ to help him create a journalists' union to improve press freedom conditions.

He and other journalists never got the chance. President Isaias Afewerki's government launched a crackdown on all critical voices, including those in the press, just one week after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States had diverted the world's attention. Under the pretext of combating terrorism, the government shut down every independent media outlet and arrested independent journalists on sight.

At the time, he and other imprisoned journalists still had contact with the outside world. In May 2002, Yohannes and several other colleagues staged a hunger strike in hopes of spurring their release. Instead, government officials transferred the journalists to undisclosed locations. Online news reports, which have not been confirmed, suggest that as many as three other journalists also may have died in government custody. The other jailed journalists continued to be held incommunicado in secret jails throughout 2007, according to CPJ research.

Paulos Kidane, Eri-TV and Dimtsi Hafash
June 2007, northwest Eritrea

Kidane, a presenter with the Amharic service of state broadcaster Eri-TV and state Radio Dimtsi Hafash (Voice of the Broad Masses), died in unknown circumstances after setting out on foot to cross into Sudan with a group of seven asylum-seekers, according to several CPJ sources. Kidane sought to leave Eritrea because of years of professional repression, according to family, colleagues, and personal notes he sent out of the country that were reviewed by CPJ.

Kidane's companions were forced to leave him in the care of residents of a village in northwest Eritrea after the journalist collapsed from seven days of walking in temperatures of more than 100 degrees, according to a woman who traveled with him and who spoke with CPJ through an interpreter. He was suffering from severe foot blisters and had an epileptic seizure, she said. Kidane's condition was not critical when the group left him, the woman insisted, saying that even in the event of complications, he would have survived had he received proper medical care. She believed Kidane may have been captured by government security forces. The village in which he was left is believed to be populated by government informants.

In a telephone interview with CPJ in August, Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu acknowledged that the journalist died while attempting to leave the country, but he offered no information about the circumstances. "We don't know," he said.

Kidane's passions for sports, particularly soccer, and poetry had led him to begin his journalism career as a freelance sportswriter in his native Ethiopia in the mid-1990s, according to his brother. In May 1998, at the outbreak of the border war, he was among more than 65,000 people of Eritrean descent deported from Ethiopia. He became the sports editor of the now-defunct independent weekly Admas in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, according to exiled Admas founder Khaled Abdu. In 2000, authorities exploited his skill in Amharic and knowledge of Ethiopia by conscripting him into state media service to broadcast anti-Ethiopian propaganda, and as a film and stage actor playing the roles of villainous Ethiopian military officers. In November 2006, he was among nine state media journalists summarily detained for several weeks without charge, according to CPJ research.

Kidane, 40, was survived by a wife and infant daughter, according to his brother.

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