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For Eritrean expatriate press, intimidation in exile

Tedros Menghistu's press card from Eritrea. He lives in Houston now.For the better part of the last 20 years, Tedros Menghistu has been a refugee, forced to flee his Red Sea homeland of Eritrea not once, but twice—first as a young man displaced by war in the early 1990s, and then as a professional journalist escaping political censorship and military conscription a decade later. Menghistu is also one of a handful of enterprising former professional journalists uprooted from Eritrea who have started independent news outlets in cities such as HoustonToronto, and London. As outlets for a range of views suppressed by the government in Eritrea, these upstart media platforms work under intimidation from supporters of the Eritrean government. 

Menghistu arrived in Houston as a refugee in 2006. He works two jobs to feed his wife and two children while taking communication classes at a local community college. Since February 2009, he is also the publisher of a small community newsletter targeting Eritreans in southeastern Texas. “We’re working part-time; we print 250 copies and distribute in churches, Starbucks, and places where Eritreans gather,” said Menghistu, describing Selam, once a biweekly in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, and now a monthly newsletter distributed in Houston’s predominantly East African neighborhood of Lantern Village. “We intend to be a media platform for people to communicate with each other.”

“We also raise issues,” Menghistu added, referring in particular to an editorial that took a stand on the divisive issue of United Nations sanctions imposed on Eritrea in December 2009 on allegations that the country backs Islamist insurgents in neighboring Somalia. In this case, Selam’s editorial urged Eritrean expats to question their homeland’s government, rather than demonstrating against it, as heeded by the state and its supporters around the world, including in Houston. “One of the main reasons for the newsletter is to encourage people to express their opinions and at least tolerate other opinions,” Menghistu said. “Nobody should feel restricted to express themselves—for when you see a newborn baby, he or she cries, it’s a natural gift to express yourself.”

Easier said than done. “Wherever there are Eritreans, there are government spies who report your opinions and activities,” Menghistu said, adding that the supporters intimidate those opposed to the government with reprisals against family members left in Eritrea. “Those that have opinions different than the government, they are just labeled as opposition, as against the country, as traitors.”

Menghistu spoke from personal experience. On one Sunday in May, he went with his notebook and audio recorder in hand to cover a public seminar convened by local expat supporters of the Eritrean government to oppose the U.N. sanctions: “I was asked to leave the hall. I said, ‘Why? This is a public meeting.’ They said I had to go because I was not a supporter of [Eritrea’s ruling] PFDJ.” When Menghistu refused to budge, organizers allegedly turned the crowd onto him, stigmatizing him as “Woyanne” (a spy for Eritrea’s archfoe neighbor Ethiopia), and a traitor, among other insults. Menghistu was assaulted and his microphone stolen. He was treated for minor bruises at Houston’s Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital.

“I went to that meeting to try to cover what they were going to say,” he said. “I knew already what the meeting was about.” Houston’s police told CPJ they were investigating the incident, but Menghistu said some of the witnesses present appeared fearful to testify because they feared reprisals on relatives remaining in Eritrea.

Eyasu

One of those who relayed news about the Houston incident on his Eritrean diaspora news Web site was Amanuel Eyasu, once a senior editor with the state Eritrean News Agency and now the editor of the London-based site Assenna. To Eyasu, Menghistu’s account was more than familiar, he had lived it himself. It was in December 2007 when he filed a complaint with London police for assault after refusing to leave a public meeting of government supporters he went to cover. He documented the incident by posting an interview with one of the witnesses, a local Eritrean activist, who was also allegedly verbally abused and roughed up for his views.

The Houston incident was a front-page item in this month’s edition of Menghistu’s Selam newsletter, with a news article detailing it, an editorial, and a republished copy of CPJ’s news alert on it. However, Menghistu reported that the 200 copies he distributed in local stores earlier this month disappeared unusually fast. “One witness at a Starbucks told me he saw three guys—they came one by one, and took a large amount of copies. They collected everything.”

This development did not surprise Aaron Berhane, once the editor-in-chief of Eritrea’s defunct largest newspaper, Setit, and the publisher of the award-winning Toronto-based Meftih since September 2004. They used to dump the paper in the garbage,” he said. “They flattened my car's tire with a knife on July 23, 2007. They broke the front glass of my car on January 17, 2008.” To overcome the sabotage of his paper’s distribution, Berhane said he convinced storeowners to install security cameras and relied on the assistance of volunteers.

Berhane (Colin McConnell/Toronto Star)

Berhane and Menghistu experienced much worse when they were both involved in starting the first independent newspapers in Eritrea in the late 1990s. Menghistu, then a producer with state-run Radio Meneseyat (“Youth”), and a reporter with the ruling PFDJ's National Union of Eritrean Youth & Students (NUEYS) newspaper Tirigta (“Heartbeat”) said overwhelming political pressure in the state media made him want to start his own newspaper.

“Before we broadcast anything, a ruling party censor had to check everything,” he said. He recalled a time when he interviewed Justice Minister Fawzia Hashim about Eritrea's controversial presidential special court. “You had to give her the questions ahead of time and she had to read the story before it was published.”

Menghistu’s newspaper would be called Selam (“Peace”). It was 1999, during Eritrea's bloody border conflict with Ethiopia. “It was born in the middle of war,” he said. “I called it ‘Peace’ because people wanted peace.” Menghistu was also improving his training in journalism and shared workshop classes with Berhane and other journalists who have since disappeared in government custody. “I knew Dawit Isaac and Joshua [Fessehaye Yohannes]. We took courses at the American Embassy,” he said He still has a copy of an October 1999 story in Selam, reporting the attempt by independent journalists to create a private press association that the government would never allow. “We didn’t work long because in April 2000 they took us to military service.” He would escape only three years later.

For Menghistu, Berhane, and Eyasu, sustaining a news outlet only part-time while working odd jobs to survive is a personal expense and a demanding commitment on their personal lives. “I started Assenna with my own money in May 2007 and launched a shortwave to Eritrea radio station in February 2009,” Eyasu said. “I work eight hours for my day job, and the site is my night job. You do it at the expense of the time you can spend with your children, your personal life. You write the articles, you produce and post radio programs. Most of the time, I sleep at 3 a.m. and get up at 7. It’s demanding. When readers and listeners tell you you‘re doing good job, that’s our salary.” In Toronto, Berhane also runs Meftih part-time while working full-time as a market researcher.

All three journalists believe a lot remains to be done. “Media is very important for countries like us to become civil and gain political maturity,” said Eyasu. “We need lots of private media outlets representing a diversity of opinions and views. We’re not opposition per se; we oppose the government because it doesn’t allow any free existence of newspapers or things conducive to public debate. Even we oppose the opposition if they do similar things.”

For Berhane, diaspora media is a necessary outlet for the natural range of views of Eritreans that the government seeks to repress. Berhane said that the Eritrean government knows the power of the diaspora media: “It has great potential to enlighten the people to know their rights and duties, and in the same token to stand up for their rights.” He went on to tell me with great frustration, “I lost two brothers in Eritrea’s war of independence and served in the military in the border war against Ethiopia. How could they treat me like an enemy of the country because I don’t think like them?”

Regardless, Menghistu is undeterred in his pursuit of journalism. “I have a long way to go,” he said, and told me about his long-term ambition of studying journalism at the University of Houston. But, he added, “I’ll continue what I’m doing.”

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Comments

First of all Eritrean people agianst the sanctions are not nesesarly supporting the govement except for obvious reason why it took place.The unfairness of the situation. Media is very powerful But even in process bringing the truth especially when it treatens to divide a nation to total chaos....?! don't get me wrong I do condomen what happened and is still happening to Eritrean journalists.

Thanks hassim I always look forward to your reports .

thanks for the story jornalism is aprofeshion that uptodating us while we doing ower personal things.wether we pay or not for the story those gornalists sakrifis a lott.for me gornalism is the extention of my sight &hering/ears i thanks you all very dearly.

The government of Eritrea and it's boss are not different than those in North Korea. A totalitarian regime that controls everything including the private life of its citizens. Encourages a wife to spy on her husband, reads content of envelopes sent by family members, sends spies to churches and mosques, just to mention a few of what happens there everyday.
Eritrea is a big prison and some prions in civilized world are much better than it.

I am always touched by the committment and professionalism of our journalists in exile, they are keepng hope alive for all of us, they have become true voices of the countless voiceless. and that voice is becoming ever stronger and more coherent with each passing day... it may take long but a free Eritrea will be our's one day and that would be our reward ... keep on keeping on folks it is not in vain at all.

Remember that in 1950s the 'selfi Andnet' in Eritrea were trying to kill the best known Eritrean journalist, Editor of Hanti Eritra and advocate for freedom Ato WeldAb Weldemariam. What's happening now is just history is repeating itself. But fellow journalists keep going on.

ALL YOU IN EXIL JORNALIST NOT SERVING ERITREA AND PLL BUT YOU SERVE FOR WHO SEND YOU DO DISTEBLIZED ERITREA. WE KNOW YOU VERY WELL. WHATEVER GEVERNEMENT WE HAVE WE WILL SUPPORT BECOUSE WE HAVE SEEN THIRE IS NO JISTES IN THE WORLED. IF THIRE IS WHY THE GEVERNMENT OF AMERICA SUPPORT ETHIOPIA TO DISTROY ERITREA AND ITS PPL FOREVER. WHY THE FINAL AND BINDING RUL IS NOT FINISHED? SO I CAN SAY YOUR JORNALISM TO SERVE ONLY THE WHITE OR WEST AND YOUR POCKET. LIVE ALON ERITREA AND PPL OF ERITREA. WE DO NOT WANT YOUR DEMOCRACY OR BLA BLA. WE KNOW WHAT WE WANT AND WHAT WE DO.

freedom of speech applies to any eritrean in any part of the world. however whent it comes to national security of any country ,those who incite violonce and division on the ppaer they write shoud be made responsible for their actions. furthermore all this people so called journalist starting to oppose military national service in eritrea as free labour, infact i would describe it as every citzen of eritrean duty to protect their country.the comment like this is what making people of eritrea starting to question thier geniune intention to protect the people of eritrea. needles to say that we have a problem in our country that needs adressing very soon.However comparing this young nation of eritrea to other countries in africa even the world knows how to solve problems, and on the road to become the first country in africa for self reliant on food(No Charities ) as the rest of african countries depend on.

I am not necessarily in tune with what thee government does or doesn't but the existence of the country is my first priority. Eritrea comes first! Who is going to govern the country? Those who are dancing in Addis with Meles who want us to be divided as the Somalis, who don't/doesn't even believe in our independence!! deceptives and corrupt street smart guys!

This is not a matter of democracy or free press. The Woyanne invaded Eritrea by the reason of border. However as we can see now puplicly the former woyyane leaders are claiming about Assab. That is the real agenda of the war. When they found this impossible they come to divide Eritreans in the name of democracy, Ethnic, and regionalism.....etc. They turned every stone to divide and weaken Eritreans.

It is true that democracy, free press is important in the development of the country but when it is used by forign powers to weaken the unity of the people it is rather not preferable. Please far away yourselves from those who called them selves oppostion groups who are trying to implment the agenda of woyanne to our country.

I am surprised what happened to Tewdros and other journalists while exersising journalistic activities. It is amazing what free press opponents indescriminately furstrating news editors.I am ,as Ethiopian journalist the firstone witnessing what happend to Wondafrash here in Houston,the frusration had exprianced Ethiopian free press journalists the past years. I also afraid of the incidents being occurred here in USA soil.

In response to what aron wrote, I read your comments with horror and shock wondering how ignorant you are? first of all it is quite obvious that you have been brain washed by paranoid, schizofrenic and bloody dictator of Eritrea. our exiled Journalist desrves a praise and support for being courageous to brake the scilence of eritrean people and expose the devil possessing Eritrea. our people have become state sponsored slaves; we have been denied the right to be governed by constitutional governemnt; fredom of movment, and so on.... so Aron is the people of eritrea and its journalist have the right to demand their rights? or they are just "DESTEBLIZING ERITREA" and "serving for the white" JUST LIKE YOU AND YOUR FELLOW PUPPETS OF THE DECTATOR CLAIMS TO BE???


Why don’t you be a good woyanne and leave Eritrea the F@*$ alone. Mr. Wondefrash. This is America, You can organize and have a private meeting including opposing the government of Eritrea freely with whom you think shares your Idea and view, but don’t come to a place where nobody shares your view and then turned back complained(be a cry baby) that..................like they say "don’t put your finger where they don’t belong."

it is good

mohammed taha tewekel June 20, 2010 6:20:51 AM ET

Ato Ermias the domn war was not started by weyanie. it was ignited by Esayas himself. You remeber when he want to start war with any neighbour he has to visit any arabic country and tell puppet comander to ignite a war...and always said ...while I was visiting such and such country ...said I got report "the wayanie....Yemanies...Jouboutee's...sudaneese...are fighting as as if he never knew. So Mr Ermisa do not be naive or foll or stupid for that matter or be as you never knew..all the wars are provoked by PIA. Now by supporting the stupid president you have to know you are part of the distruction. PLZ, let us try another alternative instead of following Idiot president.
Eritrea will never perish because God has made a sign like "KAEL" in the bible.
God bless Eritrea

part of the mistake the government of eritrea
did is putting such inexperienced amateur
reporters in national media institution
It would have been fair and just if they started at the KEBABI and SUBZOBA level and
acquire experience and ethics before the are put at such lofty position which is difficult for such new college graduates to handle.

Tedros and those like him are heroes. Shame on those Eritreans who live in the comfort and freedom of America and still support repression and tyranny back home. What a shameful display at the Houston meeting. This is truly a dark moment and I hope the Houston Police prosecutes the offenders.

I don't understand why they call themselves as "journalist" ! How is that recruits of peace corp are labeled of a journalist. I am glad they kick Tedros out of the public meeting that was helb by supporters if you are not going to "report" what was said and twist everything around then you have no reason to there...

To Wondefrash clearly we don't share the same values and idea so stay out of our business.

A bunch off crooks and opportunists that prefer to 'fight' an illusory enemy 9000 miles away from the comfort of your sofas.
You are wasting your time for nothing. Better spend your time productively rather than intoxicating yourself with 'press freedom' and 'democracy' crap, it is not edible afterall :-)
Illusion, that is. You are immersed in a bottle of hate and revenge. And that is the worst killer that is drving many to suicide and depression. Don't you Eritrea and Eritreans as an outlet to your frustration.