173 out of 173 in the latest worldwide index
Area: 117, 600 sq. km.
Languages: Tigrinya, Arabic
Head of state: Issaias Afeworki, since 1993
Eritrea, which has been led since independence by the highly authoritarian Issaias Afeworki, figures in last place on Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom index. The country has been cut off from the outside world since the terrible roundups of September 2001 and at least four journalists have died in prison, unknown and forgotten, while the situation goes from bad to worse.
Life may appear sweet in the floral streets of the capital Asmara, but is in fact nightmarish, particularly in the dark corridors of the all-powerful ministry of information. From the heights of this fortress atop a hill overlooking the capital, the minister, Ali Abdu, takes his orders directly from Issaias Afeworki. The one-time rebel leader, now a pitiless dictator, has gradually destroyed the hopes Eritreans had for their country before independence. The head of state set the political police at the heels of the reformist wing of the ruling party on 18 September 2001. Former companions in arms, ministers and influential generals were thrown into prison. The handful of independent newspapers appearing in Asmara was banned. Editors and publishers were arrested. Any criticism of the regime is condemned as “damaging national security”. Hundreds of political or military figures and 13 journalists failed to escape the round-ups or gave themselves up to the authorities. All were imprisoned, some of them in underground cells.
One of them, co-founder of the weekly Setit, Fessehaye Yohannes, known as “Joshua”, died on 11 January 2007 as a result of atrocious prison conditions in the remote Eiraeiro jail in the north-east of the country, where the most high profile prisoners are held. He was one of the country’s leading intellectuals, as well as poet, dramatist and director of a theatre company.
The public media in Eritrea do nothing but relay the regime’s belligerent and ultra-nationalist discourse. Closely watched by Ali Abdu, staff on public Eri-TV, radio Dimtsi Hafash (The Voice of the Masses) and the government daily Hadas Eritrea have been turned into enthusiastic official purveyors of government propaganda. No divergence is tolerated. Like scores of their fellow citizens who flee the country each month, many journalists working in the public media can no longer bear the gagging imposed on them by the government and go into exile. Most leave on foot at risk of being shot dead by border patrols who have received the order to shoot on sight. The very few foreign correspondents in the country have slowly been driven out as a result of harassment or intimidation, or simply through expulsion. Not a single one now lives in Asmara.
Reporters Without Borders has reacted to the scandalous situation within the country by campaigning for the Eritrean president and his ministers to be declared personae non grata in Europe.