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Respect for Press Freedom in Eritrea Once Again Under Scrutiny

The recent reported solitary confinement of a radio journalist in Eritrea has once again put the status of press freedom, the treatment of journalists and prison conditions inside the country under scrutiny.

Yirgalem Fesseha Mebrahtu, who has contributed to both public and private media during her career, was detained along with the rest of her colleagues at Radio Bana on February 22nd 2009.

“The Eritrean government has once again shown its cruelty,” Press Freedom organization Reporters Without Borders(RSF) stated in response to the news. The journalist has been incommunicado since the time of her arrest but RSF reports that the reasons behind Yirgalem Fesseha’s recent isolation is currently unknown.

This news comes a little over three years since sources in Eritrea revealed that Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes died in custody. A former guerilla fighter during Eritrea’s 30 year conflict for independence from Ethiopia, Yohannes was a respected playwright and a popular writer for Setit, a weekly publication that had established a reputation for being critical of how the government handled difficult social issues. Yohannes was arrested in 2001 during a government crackdown on private media after the events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The private press were alleged by the Eritrean authorities to be a security threat by “jeopardizing national unity” at the time.

RSF have verified that Yohannes was the fourth journalist to die at the secret desert prison he was held. Said Abdulkader, Medhane Haile and Yusuf Mohamed Ali perished at the prison between 2005 and 2006. Koïchiro Matsuura, the Director-General of UNESCO at the time, invited the Eritrean government “to shed light on these cases and to ensure respect for due process of law and basic human rights, including freedom of expression and press freedom.”

However, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) confirm that at least 19 journalists remain behind bars in Eritrea as of December 1 2009 . One of these journalists, Dawit Isaac was one of the 2009 finalists for the Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought. A Eritrean/Swedish dual national, Isaac was a co-founder of Setit and his nomination for this award has been seen as a moral victory by Eritrean political exiles with one stating “Dawit Isaac has not sunk into the oblivion where the authorities want him to be.”

Eritrea is considered to be one of the worst countries in the world to be a journalist. It was ranked last in RSF’s most recent Press Freedom Index and according to Freedom House’s latest Freedom of the Press report, foreign journalists are restricted from entering the country unless they agree to make favorable reports about the regime.

The Eritrean constitution guarantees freedom of speech but as national elections have repeatedly been postponed due to border disputes with Ethiopia, the constitution has never been implemented.

Photo Credit: CIA World Factbook

Eritrea Houses World’s Biggest Prison For Journalists

A tiny country on the east coast of Africa, Eritrea and its 5 million inhabitants don’t often make the international news stage. But it is more politics than population that keeps the country out of the press. Eight years after a government mandate that shut down all private news outlets and ended free speech, Eritrea now matches China and Iran in the number of journalists it has detained without trial.

Reporters Without Borders announced that Eritrea now holds at least 30 journalists in prison, adding that four of the journalists who were detained in the September of 2001 crackdown have died due to harsh prison conditions which included metal containers and underground cells.

Aaron Berhane is the former editor of Setit, the largest private paper in Eritrea before it was shut down. He managed to escape to Canada after the fateful announcement in 2001, one of the few among his peers and colleagues who is not dead or in jail. He writes about the first time he heard the government announcement of the media blackout, saying:

I was in bed when my wife turned on the radio to listen to the morning news. ‘Starting today, September 18, 2001, the government has ordered all private presses to stop their publications,'” he recalls. “I felt as if I was dreaming. I didn’t move my head. I was still under the blanket.”

Berhane got lucky. He wasn’t home the night the police came to his house to arrest him and he is still able to practice journalism. He now runs Meftih, a community paper geared towards helping other
Eritreans in Canada.

There is no government interference or police harassment here and there is respect for the rule of law. In Eritrea, it’s not the law that rules, it’s one person that rules the law,” says Berhane. “I hope that one day my country will enjoy the blessings that I experience here in Canada and that my colleagues will be eventually set free.”