Reporters Without Borders calls on the foreign ministries of the leading democracies to mark tomorrow’s sixth anniversary of the start of a wave of arrests in Asmara by summoning Eritrea’s ambassadors to express disapproval for a crackdown that led to the suppression of all freedoms and the imprisonment of more than 10 journalists in unknown locations.
Governments that believe in press freedom should make a formal protest about the complete secrecy surrounding Eritrea’s political prisoners and the threats and extortion to which the Eritrean diaspora and exiles and the families of political prisoners are subjected, the organisation said.
“Eritreans need the support of the democracies in order to get President Issaias Afeworki’s regime to loosen its grip on them and their families,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This anniversary must be used to show that press freedom and human rights are not a luxury reserved for a few prosperous nations but a universal right.”
The organisation added: “It would be inconceivable if this anniversary were to pass without any sign of solidarity with Eritrea’s detainees from governments that should make at least some, minimal demands on the countries that have embassies in their capitals.”
On 18 September 2001, the Eritrean government suddenly ordered the closure of all the privately-owned media and began throwing their executives and editors one by one into prison. For several weeks, the political police waged a manhunt in the capital of Africa’s youngest country.
Hundreds of government opponents have been held in unknown locations ever since then. They include at least 12 journalists - Dawit Isaac, Fessehaye “Joshua” Yohannes, Yusuf Mohamed Ali, Mattewos Habteab, Dawit Habtemichael, Medhanie Haile, Temesgen Gebreyesus, Emanuel Asrat, Said Abdulkader, Seyoum Tsehaye, Hamid Mohamed Said and Saleh Al Jezaeeri.
According to the information available to Reporters Without Borders, four of these journalists have already died in the 314 prison centres scattered throughout the country. The few Eritreans who have managed to escape or have been released say conditions in the prisons are appalling.
Those who have not been arrested or who have not managed to flee the country are forced to live under the yoke of an all-powerful government. After the defection of several leading state media journalists, the authorities began last November to arrest other journalists suspected of staying in contact with the fugitives or of planning to flee themselves.
One of the suspect journalists arrested at the end of last year, Paulos Kidane of the Amharic-language service of state-owned Eri-TV and radio Dimtsi Hafash (Voice of the Broad Masses), told Reporters Without Borders after his release: "We were beaten and tortured in prison for refusing to give the passwords to our e-mail accounts. In the end we cracked because the pain was too much.” Kidane died a few months later, in June, while trying to flee on foot across the border into Sudan.
Daniel Mussie of Radio Dimtsi Hafash’s Oromo-language service has not been released since last November’s crackdown. Eyob Kessete, a journalist with the Amharic-language service of Dimtsi Hafash, and Eri-TV editor Johnny Hisabu were arrested while trying to leave the country clandestinely across the border earlier this year and are still being held somewhere.
Even those Eritreans who manage to get out of the country continue to have to submit to the government’s dictates. All members of the diaspora are obliged to keep paying 2 per cent of their income to the Eritrean embassy in the country where they reside. If they do not comply, they are banned from ever returning home, owning any property there or even sending packages back to Eritrea.
The families of journalists and others who flee abroad are exposed to reprisals and there have been cases in which close relatives - brothers, sisters or parents - have been imprisoned indefinitely and denied contact with the outside world.