The Eritrean government banned the entire independent press last year, as part of a crackdown on political dissent in the tiny Red Sea nation.
In early August, a dozen senior officials and other members of the ruling elite signed a public letter criticizing President Isaias Afeworki's dictatorial rule. The letter followed a lengthy internal debate about human rights, democracy, and the conduct of the debilitating war with Ethiopia, which claimed the lives of 19,000 Eritreans.
The letter sparked a full-blown political crisis, involving defections, the resignations or dismissals of top officials, and the jailing of government critics and journalists. General elections planned for December 2001 were postponed, with little explanation, to sometime in 2002.
While the political alienation of many top officials and citizens was hardly a secret in the capital, Asmara, there was little advance warning of the crisis that erupted in early September. Even today, President Afeworki enjoys a certain prestige for leading the liberation struggle against Ethiopia that led to independence 10 years ago. According to The Economist, the chief complaint against Afeworki is the lack of accountability in his government. "The government is still called ‘transitional,' but looks pretty well entrenched," the magazine noted.
At least 10 journalists were arrested during the crackdown; all remained in government custody at year's end. Most of them were picked up around September 18, after state radio announced a blanket ban on independent publications. Their bank accounts and other assets were frozen or confiscated and their relatives were denied the right to visit them.
According to sources in the capital, Asmara, six other journalists have managed to flee abroad. At least two more have been missing since their arrests in September, and a third since July 2000.
Eritrean authorities offered various justifications for jailing independent journalists and banning newspapers, accusing them, variously, of draft evasion, threatening national security, and failing to observe licensing requirements. But it seemed apparent that the crackdown was motivated by political anxiety ahead of the December elections.
CPJ made this argument in a December 3 letter to President Afeworki, who did not respond. However, previous CPJ letters and statements on the crackdown drew angry replies from government officials and members of the Eritrean diaspora.
In a June 7 letter to Justice Minister Foazia Hashim, CPJ requested information about the whereabouts of 15 independent journalists alleged to have been jailed or conscripted. Hashim replied on June 11, claiming that five of the 15 journalists were free and working for local publications, while the remaining 10 were "performing their obligations in the National Service Program."
On June 13, CPJ representatives met with Girma Asmeron, the Eritrean ambassador to the United States. During the meeting, Ambassador Asmeron stated that Eritrea was "moving toward a constitutional democracy, and the press laws are going to be revised and improved after that process is completed."
On July 10, Eritrean journalists from the state and private press met with Ethiopian colleagues as part of an innovative, U.N.-sponsored effort to end the war of words that continued to rage between their two countries, seven months after the end of active hostilities in the disputed border region. They met on a bridge over the Mereb River, which separates the two countries, and talked about using information to promote reconciliation.
The journalists pledged to create an atmosphere conducive to bringing their nations to mutual understanding and cooperation. But while Ethiopian journalists enjoyed at least some increased freedom last year, the Eritrean media literally ceased to exist.
Eritrean authorities consistently rejected international criticism of the crackdown. After CPJ released a news alert about the July 25 police kidnapping of Mattewos Habteab, editor of the independent newspaper Meqaleh, Ambassador Asmeron wrote that CPJ was "trying to guide the policy of the Eritrean government" by "distributing baseless accusations" from its New York headquarters. Habteab was freed in early September. Upon his release, the journalist confirmed that he had indeed been in police custody. He was re-arrested on September 19.
In March, Eritrean officials criticized a Reuters report titled "Eritrean troops threaten Ethiopia peace." Asmara claimed the report, which summarized a March 7 statement by U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, was "inflammatory, false and biased." And on at least one occasion last year, President Afeworki personally summoned and rebuked an Eritrea-based foreign reporter (who asked to remain anonymous) over an article that the president claimed was "inaccurate" and "against Eritrea."
Italian ambassador Antonio Bandini was thrown out of the country on October 1, after he protested the arrests of dissidents and the ban on the private press. Italy then expelled Eritrea's representative in Rome (the two traditional allies normalized diplomatic relations a month later).
On October 11, authorities arrested two Eritrean employees of the U.S. embassy in Asmara for allegedly translating "sensitive" official documents and reports in the local press, the United Nations' Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) reported. And on October 15, the Afeworki government accused a number of Western countries of a "concerted effort" to criticize Eritrea after the U.S. and several European Union countries objected to the degradation of human rights in the country.
Mattewos Habteab, MeQaleh
Habteab, editor-in-chief of the private Tigrigna-language newspaper MeQaleh, was kidnapped by security forces in the capital, Asmara. Eritrean journalists contacted by CPJ said Habteab had received a conscription notice from the Defense Ministry days prior to his disappearance.
Noting that soccer players, artists, singers, and musicians are exempt from military service, MeQaleh published a July 26 editorial calling on the Eritrean government not to conscript independent journalists.
Echoing MeQaleh, CPJ sources in Asmara believe that consription is being used to punish independent journalists who criticize the regime of President Isaias Afeworki.
Habteab was released on September 3. CPJ published an alert about the case on August 6.
All private newspapers
Eritrean authorities suspended all the country's privately owned newspapers until further notice, the state radio station announced.
Newspapers affected by the suspension order included Meqaleh, Setit, Tiganay, Zemen, Wintana, Admas, Keste Debena, and Mana.
It is unclear what prompted the decision, but sources in Asmara saw the move as an attempt by President Isaias Afeworki's government to suppress independent news coverage of an ongoing state crackdown on opponents of the People's Front for Democracy and Justice, the party that has ruled Eritrea since independence from Ethiopia in 1991.
According to Eritrea's ambassador to the United States, however, the papers were suspended for failing to comply with media licensing requirements under the country's press laws. Embassy officials said authorities had warned the publishers several times before the suspension order. Ambassador Girma Asmeron said the papers would remain suspended while authorities investigate their current licenses. "This procedure will be transparent and in accordance with the laws of the country," he said.
Yet Ali Abdu, the head of the state television network, told the BBC that the newspapers had been suspended "in the interest of national unity after being given ample time to correct their mistakes." The so-called mistakes amount to publishing critical letters about the government's crackdown on political dissent, the BBC reported.
The government-owned daily newspaper, Hadas Eritrea, is now the only publication allowed in the country.
CPJ published an alert about the suspension order on September 20.
Medhanie Haile, Keste Debena
Yusuf Mohamed Ali, Tsigenay
Mattewos Habteab, Meqaleh,
Temesken Ghebreyesus, Keste Debena
Amanuel Asrat, Zemen,
Fesshaye Yohannes, Setit
Said Abdelkader, Admas
Selamyinghes Beyene, Meqaleh,
Dawit Habtemichael, Meqaleh,
Seyoum Fsehaye, free-lance
Beginning September 18, 2001, Eritrean security forces arrested at least 10 local journalists. Two others fled the country. The arrests came less than a week after authorities abruptly closed all privately owned newspapers, allegedly to safeguard national unity in the face of growing political turmoil in the tiny Horn of Africa nation.
International news reports quoted presidential adviser Yemane Gebremeskel as saying that the journalists could have been arrested for avoiding military service. Sources in Asmara, however, say that at least two of the detained journalists, free-lance photographer Fsehaye and Mohamed, editor of Tsigenay, were legally exempt from national service. Fsehaye is reportedly exempt since he is an independence war veteran; while Mohamed is apparently well over the maximum age for military service.
All these journalists remained in government custody as of December 31.
CPJ sources in Asmara maintain that the suspension and subsequent arrests of independent journalists were part of a full-scale government effort to suppress political dissent in advance of December elections, which the government canceled without explanation.