Eritrea cut itself off from the world five years ago today. While the world’s attention was still totally absorbed by the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington of the previous week, President Issaias Afeworki shut down Eritrea’s privately-owned press on 18 September 2001. The round-ups began five days later. Hundreds of government opponents are still in prison. At least 13 journalists are still being held somewhere in the country’s detention centres. Reporters Without Borders calls on African newspapers to publish articles this week about what is one of Africa’s biggest political tragedies of the last 50 years.
What were you doing on 18 September 2001?
On that day you were probably still reeling from the horrific scenes of passenger jets being flown into the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. You were still discussing it with your family, friends and colleagues. And you had no idea that one of Africa’s biggest political dramas of the past half-century was unfolding in the continent’s northeastern corner, in a small country beside the Red Sea.
On 18 September 2001, Eritrean President Issaias Afeworki ordered the closure of all of the privately-owned press, silencing all of the country’s independent publications in one fell swoop. Asmara, a city until then praised in songs for its dolce vita, was stunned. The raids began five days later, on 23 September. Within hours, the capital was turned into a hunting ground for the political police. Some of the country’s most brilliant journalists hid in cellars. Government opponents and presidential rivals were thrown into police trucks and locked up in the city’s police stations.
Some had the courage and energy to flee on foot and eventually reached refugee camps in Sudan. Others, such as poet and playwright Fessehaye Yohannes, got tired of living like hunted animals and wanted to show their solidarity with their independent journalist colleagues, so they turned themselves in to the police. A former newspaper editor who is now a political refugee in Sweden says: “It was the end of all our hopes.”
18-23 September 2001 - a black week in the history of press freedom in Africa
What happened to push Eritrea over the edge after a decade of independence? The president promised elections, but none were held. The president promised civil and political liberties, but the police targeted anyone on the least pretext. With the second war with Ethiopia barely over, the independent press relayed the calls for democratisation being made by 15 senior ruling party officials, known as the Group of 15. But all that came to a sudden end five years ago, on 18 September 2001.
Since that date, nothing has happened in Eritrea without President Afeworki knowing about it. There are no longer any independent publications. For news, the population has to rely on Soviet-style government media and a few foreign radio stations whose signals can be received in Asmara.
Along with the hundreds of government opponents, 13 journalists are languishing somewhere in the country’s prisons and detention centres. Their names are Dawit Isaac, Fessehaye Yohannes, Yusuf Mohamed Ali, Mattewos Habteab, Dawit Habtemichael, Medhanie Haile, Temesgen Gebreyesus, Emanuel Asrat, Said Abdulkader, Seyoum Tsehaye, Hamid Mohamed Said, Saidia Ahmed and Saleh Al Jezaeeri. The few Eritreans who have managed to flee the country after being released from detention say conditions are terrible. Prisoners are locked up in metal containers inside military camps. Some are tortured. Mercury is poured in their ears. None of them has been tried, or has seen a lawyer or has been allowed family visits. We do not even know if they are still alive. Each year, the government repeats that they are “traitors to the motherland” or “spies for Ethiopia.” Since 2001, parliamentarians have supposedly been preparing a report on their “crimes.”
The Eritrean government no longer listens to anyone. Nobody has been able to make it see reason. Only international public opinion has enough influence to achieve this.
Reporters Without Borders