Area: 117,600 sq.km.
Population: 4, 141,000
Languages: Tigrinya, Arabic
Head of state: Issaias Afeworki
Eritrea is a dismal exception in Africa. The youngest country on the continent is also its largest prison for journalists. Ever since a wave of arrests in September 2001, Eritrean journalists who are not in prison or recruited into the heavily-controlled state media are living in exile.
The situation in Eritrea is tragically simple: There is no longer any privately-owned press, no freedom of expression and no foreign correspondents. At the end of the last war with Ethiopia in 2000, many thought it would herald a new era for this small forgotten country in the Horn of Africa of renewal, development and openness. It has been nothing of the sort.
Today’s "cold peace" between Eritrea and its Ethiopian brother enemy has boosted the standing of President Issaias Afeworki’s country in the tourist guides. Among its attractions are its sea front colonial architecture, its sunlit mountains, its teeming marine depths and the welcoming smiles of the Eritreans themselves. In 2003, the tourism minister launched a big promotion of the 115-kilometre road from the heights of the capital Asmara to Massawa on the Red Sea under the slogan: "Three seasons in two hours". "Tourism will become one of Eritrea’s main sources of income", predicted Tzeggai Mogos, Director General of Tourism Development at the Eritrean Ministry of Tourism.
But beneath this enchanting vision lurks a much more sinister reality. At the end of the war with Ethiopia, some leading officials in the ruling party began to call for democratic reforms. In October 2000, Eritrean academics in exile sent President Afeworki their "Berlin Manifesto" calling for greater transparency of the country’s institutions and greater freedom of expression.
In May 2001, Eritrea’s independent press reported on calls for democratisation of the country by 15 top leaders of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) including a former foreign minister and a former vice-president. While the eyes of the world were still on New York and Washington, on 18 September 2001, the Eritrean government decided to round up this "group of 15" and to "suspend" all privately-owned media. Over a period of several days, 11 members of the protest group were arrested along with the capital’s most prominent journalists.
Ten journalists who had begun a hunger strike in protest were in April 2002 moved to unknown places of detention and nothing has been heard of them since. Their families are not allowed to visit them. The authorities have only confirmed that these "traitors to the country" are still alive.
They are: Yusuf Mohamed Ali, editor of Tsigenay; Mattewos Habteab, editor of Meqaleh; Dawit Habtemichael, deputy editor of Meqaleh; Medhanie Haile and Temesgen Gebreyesus, respectively deputy editor and board member of Keste Debena; Emanuel Asrat, editor of Zemen; Eritrean-Swedish national Dawit Isaac and Fessehaye Yohannes, of the newspaper Setit; Said Abdulkader, editor of the newspaper Admas, and a freelance photographer, Seyoum Tsehaye. Three journalists on the government media were arrested in January and February 2002. They were: Hamid Mohamed Said and Saidia Ahmed, of public television Eri-TV and Saleh Al Jezaeeri, of public radio Voice of the Broad Masses. In July 2003, Akhlilu Solomon, local correspondent of US public radio Voice of America (VOA) was arrested on the pretext that he had not carried out his military service.
At the time of the 2001 roundup, the authorities had said that a parliamentary commission would be set up to study the conditions under which the independent media could resume operations. In October 2004, Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed said that the report was still being prepared. He said the deputies "have been working for three years. Three years is not too long." The minister however insisted that the imprisoned journalists "were not journalists either professionally or ethically" but "enemy agents before and after the war" of 1998-2000. If they are being held, he explained, "it is for treason, it is linked to national security and we cannot make any compromises with that".
Eritrean journalists who are not in prison or recruited into the state-run media are living in exile. The government media tamely relays official propaganda. The Eritreans only other source of news is that of the rare foreign radio stations that can be picked up in the country. But this has its risks, so tight is Eritrean police control. Even Eritrean refugees in neighbouring countries live in dread of being kidnapped by the Asmara secret police.
The country was cut off even further from the outside world on 13 September 2004, when the sole permanent foreign correspondent still in the country was expelled. Jonah Fisher, who worked for BBC Radio had his accreditation withdrawn after he was publicly criticised by the information minister. He had written an article for the British daily The Independent at the end of May headlined: "For some Eritreans, freedom is synonymous with prison and torture". The article referred to an Amnesty International report on human rights violations in the country.
And the crackdown is set to continue. The information minister in October raised the possibility "in the near future" of moving Internet cafes into schools and libraries. "The decision was adopted so as to protect Internet-users, especially youths from exposure to harmful practices such as accessing pornographic web pages" Ali Abdu Ahmed told Agence France-Presse (AFP). "Previously when we criticised the Eritrean authorities on the absence of press freedom, they replied that people had access to all the information in the world through Internet cafes," said an Asmara-based diplomat who requested anonymity. "And now the government takes a decision like this." The black-out appears to be here to stay.
14 journalists were in prison
1 journalist was expelled