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Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Eritrea

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2005
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Eritrea, February 2005, available at: [accessed 21 October 2017]
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.

Three years after a brutal crackdown in which the government shuttered independent media outlets and detained large numbers of critics, Eritrea remained the leading jailer of journalists in Africa. Seventeen journalists were still in prison at the end of 2004, many held incommunicado in secret jails, according to CPJ research.

The government's repressive policies have left the nation without even a nominal private press, and with precious little international media scrutiny. In September, the government expelled Jonah Fisher, a reporter for the BBC and Reuters, who was the only foreign correspondent in Eritrea at the time. Agence France-Presse later dispatched a reporter to the country.

Eritrea's economy worsened and tensions increased with its neighbors, but news coverage of these vital issues was sparse because independent reporting was not tolerated. Sudan accused Eritrea of arming and training rebels in crisis-ridden Darfur in western Sudan – a charge that Eritrean officials denied. Ethiopia, Eritrea's one-time foe in a devastating border war, refused until late November to accept a 2002 independent boundary commission ruling that awarded the disputed town of Badme to Eritrea. The two countries had promised to respect the commission's ruling as part of their 2000 peace accord.

Tensions also grew over U.N. forces patrolling the disputed border with Ethiopia. In May, the United Nations said Eritrea illegally detained its local staff and restricted the movement of its vehicles, while Eritrea accused U.N. peacekeepers of crimes including pedophilia and "using the national currency as toilet paper," according to the BBC.

The government's crackdown on the independent media began on September 18, 2001, one week after the terrorist attacks on the United States, when the eyes of the world were focused on New York and Washington, D.C. It came a year after the border war with Ethiopia had ended, at a time when some politicians were calling for democratic reform, and editorial writers at Eritrea's handful of private newspapers were promoting democracy and human rights. Amnesty International reported that "thousands" of government critics remained detained in secret jails in 2004.

"Conditions of detention in these secret prisons, as described by released or escaped prisoners, are extremely harsh," Amnesty International reported in May. "Many prisoners are held in crowded underground cells where they hardly ever see daylight.... Many are said to have died in custody as a result of torture or absence of medical treatment."

No jailed journalist was formally charged with any crime, despite the fact that Eritrean law forbids holding prisoners for more than 30 days without charge. The regime of President Asaias Aferwerki refused to release information about the health, whereabouts, or legal status of the detained journalists. Instead, it accused them of being foreign spies and mercenaries. Responding to a CPJ question at a Washington press conference in May, Eritrea's ambassador to the United States, Girma Asmerom, said that the detainees were not journalists but "paid agents of the enemy." He said that "most of them" were detained for "national security reasons."

In a published report, Aferwerki dismissed the very notion of a free press. "What is free press? There is no free press anywhere," Aferwerki told the BBC's Fisher for a story on the network's Web site. "It's not in England; it's not in the United States. We'd like to know what free press is in the first place."

In September, despite protests from the BBC and Reuters, authorities gave Fisher three days to leave the country, "No explanation was given, but as a foreigner I am fortunate," Fisher wrote. "Had I been Eritrean I have little doubt that I would now be in detention." Fisher, who had reported on human rights abuses in Eritrea, said he faced a "pattern of increasing difficulties" leading up to his expulsion. About three weeks before he was forced to leave, Fisher said, Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed accused him of "racist, negative reporting."

The few local journalists who continued filing stories for international organizations after the 2001 clampdown have been harassed, detained, or had their press permits revoked. In July 2003, authorities arrested Voice of America (VOA) stringer Aklilu Solomon after he reported on the grief of families of conscripts killed in the war with Ethiopia. His story contradicted official commemorations of their "martyrdom." Authorities claimed that Solomon was taken to complete his military service, although VOA said he had documents to show he had a medical exemption. CPJ sources said Solomon has been held incommunicado in a metal shipping container at Adi Abeto Prison, near the capital, Asmara.

In October, the government announced it would restrict Internet cafés to unspecified "educational and research centers," according to state media and Agence France-Presse (AFP). The information minister told AFP that the move was aimed at protecting minors from pornography. But CPJ sources said it was intended to block access to independent and opposition Web sites – thus censoring one of the last means of exchanging information with the outside world.

2004 Documented Cases – Eritrea

Posted: September 13, 2004

Jonah Fisher, Reuters and BBC

Jonah Fisher, who was the last remaining foreign correspondent in Eritrea, left the country after the government ordered his expulsion. Fisher, who worked in Eritrea for 18 months as correspondent for the BBC and Reuters, said authorities gave no reason for his expulsion but that he had faced a "pattern of increasing difficulties."

Fisher told CPJ he was summoned September 2 to the Information Ministry, where an official said his press accreditation was being revoked and that he should prepare to leave. Four days later, after the authorities received faxed protests from the BBC and Reuters, Fisher received a call from the same official who told him he must leave Eritrea within three days.

Eritrea has no private press since a crackdown three years ago when it banned independent media and jailed a number of journalists. In 2004, for the third year running, CPJ named the tiny Horn of Africa nation one of the world's 10 worst places to be a journalist.

Fisher said it was "impossible to tell" why Eritrean authorities expelled him, but his May 24 story in the London daily The Independent may have triggered it. The story, marking Eritrea's 11th anniversary of independence, noted an Amnesty International report on human rights abuses. It was headlined: "To some Eritreans, freedom means prison and torture."

Fisher said officials may also have been angered by a recent BBC interview in which he said that "according to human rights groups, Eritreans who are forcibly repatriated face detention and torture." The interview focused on the recent hijacking of an airplane by Eritreans being deported from Libya. Fisher said the hijacking was not reported in Eritrea's state-controlled press until a week after it happened.

The journalist told CPJ that in a conversation about three weeks before his expulsion, Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed had accused him of "racist negative reporting" and said that he "knew who [Fisher] really worked for." Eritrea has in the past accused journalists of being foreign spies, and used "national security" concerns as an excuse to jail them.

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