Africa’s newest country, independent since 1993, has become a kind of open-air prison guarded by an ultra-nationalist sole party which sees the least democratic claim as a threat to national security. Among the hundreds of political prisoners, at least 13 journalists have just spent their sixth year in jail. Three of them may well have died as a result of conditions reminiscent of a penal colony.
Eritrea has just completed a fifth year of terror and silence. The army command and the sole party, the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), continue to exert total control and to hand down severe punishment to the least tendency to criticism in this small country squeezed between Ethiopia, Sudan and the Red Sea, independent only since 1993.
Under the leadership of Information Minister, Ali Abdu, the state media continues to sing the praises of President Issaias Afeworki. Journalists who dissent from the authoritarianism of the masters of this open-air prison had no choice to but to obey orders. When the pressure became too great, they left. In 2006, around a score of them fled into exile abroad, including star presenter of the English-language service of the public channel Eri-TV, Temesghen Debesai. The former correspondent of the Voice of America (VOA), Aklilu Solomon, crossed the Ethiopian border secretly at the beginning of December. He had been arrested in July 2003 for a report on the grief felt by families of soldiers learning of the death in combat of their loved ones. The journalist was released in poor health after being held for 18 months in a metal container and then spent several weeks in a barracks to complete his “patriotic re-education”.
Open contempt for the press
The Eritrean government responded to repeated defections in its usual way - with a crackdown. From 12 November, security forces agents turned up daily at the offices of the information ministry, where state-run media are based and arrested staff without explanation. Journalists picked up in these swoops were: Ahmed "Bahja" Idris, of Eri-TV, Senait Tesfay, presenter of a Tigrinya-language service on Eri-TV, Paulos Kidane, of the Amharic-language service of Eri-TV and public Radio Dimtsi Hafash (Voice of the Broad Masses), Daniel Mussie, of the Oromo-language service of Radio Dimtsi Hafash, Temesghen Abay, of the Tigrinya-language service of Radio Dimtsi Hafash, Yemane Haile, of the state-run Eritrean News Agency (ENA), Fathia Khaled, presenter on the Arabic-language service of Eri-TV, and Amir Ibrahim, journalist on the same service, who suffers from diabetes. They are reportedly held in the capital, Asmara, in a police-run complex known as “Agip”, in reference to the oil company which previously stood at that spot. This detention centre is “where police take prisoners to torture them before transferring them to their final destination”, as a former prisoner told Reporters Without Borders.
Inhuman prison conditions
But is also seems that the irreparable may have been done in one of the country’s many detention centres. Credible sources reported at the end of 2006 that three of the 13 journalists secretly imprisoned for the past five years had died in the army-run prison of Eiraeiro, situated in a remote north-eastern desert. Said Abdulkader, Medhane Haile and Yusuf Mohamed Ali were among journalists and opposition figures rounded up in the week of 18-23 September 2001, in the aftermath of President Issaias Afeworki’s "suspension" of privately-owned media and the arrest of the ruling party’s reformist fringe. Questioned about this report by Reporters Without Borders and several international media, the Eritrean government gave only the curt reply. "We are not prepared to make any comment". The extremely harsh conditions in Eiraeiro prison could have been responsible for these presumed deaths.
Other prisoners were referred to in this report, all working for the privately-owned press. They were Seyoum Tsehaye (or Fsehaye), a freelance journalist, Dawit Habtemichael, editor and co-founder of Meqaleh, Temesghen Gebreyesus, journalist and member of the board of Keste Debena and Emanuel Asrat, editor of Zemen and all reportedly held in Eiraeiro.
Reporters Without Borders also obtained news of the co-founder of Setit, the country’s top-selling weekly prior to 2001, the poet and dramatist Fessehaye Yohannes, known as “Joshua”. He is reportedly being held in Cell 18 at Eiraeiro prison, after being held previously in Dongolo jail in the south, in an underground cell 1.5 metres wide and 2.50 metres high, lit round the clock by electric light.