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Eritrea's struggle for media freedom

Eritrea remains a difficult country from which to retrieve information as journalists are often prosecuted under state security laws (AFP)
 

The East African Journalists Association (EFJA) has called on the international community to step up pressure on the Eritrean government to release detained journalists and to support all exiled Eritrean journalists working from other countries. EFJA Chairman William Janak, who also represents the International Journalists Association in East Africa, has welcomed the UN move last week to appoint three experts as members of the new UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea. Janak believes the “Commission’s report will form an important basis for further action to help the press and human rights situation in that country.”

Experts are doubtful whether the Eritrean government will cooperate with the UN Commission of Inquiry allowing investigation into reported human rights abuses in the country. It has repeatedly denied entry permit to UN Special Rapporteur Sheila B. Keetharuth who is now a member of the commission.

Banning free press

There are no free or independent news media structures to inform the world about the country’s judicial and prison systems in Eritrea, which former inmates describe as incredibly horrendous and deadly. 

Amnesty International says there are up to 10,000 Eritrean political and religious prisoners languishing in unmarked prisons, many of them underground. Among the detainees are journalists who have been in prison since 2001 when the government brutally clamped down on them and shut down all independent media houses.

Suleiman Hussein, Chairman of the London-based Citizens for Democratic Rights in Eritrea believes his country rightfully earned its “deserved place in the RSF (Reporters without Borders) press indexthat puts it at the top of its list of press abusers.”

The government has no regrets outlawing independent press and prides itself in declaring none of this exists in the West or anywhere else. There are over 25 journalists in jail kept incommunicado some for as long as 18 years, according to the head of the commission on Eritrean Refugees, Dr Yebio Woldemariam. The government does not only incarcerate journalists but also lets them die in its dungeons unattended by medical personnel, says Woldemariam.

Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki

 

William Khayoko, founder of the Journalists for Human Rights organization based in Kenya denounces abuses in Eritrea saying that “any attempt to silence a journalist must be condemned as an assault on the Universal Declaration of Freedom of Expression under Article 19.” He claims there have been Eritrean government attempts to kidnap and eliminate exiled journalists

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) declares Eritrea the “most censored country in the world” placing it above North Korea. And for the seventh consecutive year in 2014, Eritrea remains RSF’s “biggest prison for journalists in Africa.”

The Eritrean government claims it does not punish citizens for their views but takes measures only if their activities endanger national security. But the writings of the detained and deceased journalists show they were exercising their democratic rights by publishing opposing views held by the government on one side and its dissidents on the other. Many agree that this tragic debate could have been ended soon after September 2001 if the accused had been brought before a neutral, independent court of law as required by Eritrea‘s criminal law or its centuries-old traditional norms and practices in administering justice.  

Attacks against exiled journalists

Exiled Eritrean journalist ‘Henok Amman’ (name changed for security reasons), urges all human rights groups to work relentlessly to ensure that those responsible for the unlawful detention or death in prison of journalists due to torture be held accountable for their actions. Amman laments the endless news blackout in Eritrea, which has left the rest of the world unaware of human suffering in the country. He condemns government funding for espionage activities to divide and intimidate Eritrean refugees everywhere, especially those seeking protection in neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan. He says it is a “scary business” operating as journalist from these states where kidnapping, torture and even death cannot be ruled out as retaliation by government agents who tend to be more aggressive and daring than those in Western capitals.

However activist journalism can also prove costly for Eritreans in the West, because it has been effective in exposing repression in Eritrea. Many Eritrean journalists in North America, Europe and Australia say they have been subjected to wicked attacks and threatened with violence by government agents. “The fact that radio programmes are jammed at great expense to the regime is [one] indication of how threatening the input of diaspora-based journalists and media professionals is,” says London-based Eritrean journalist and human rights activist Selam Kidane. She says the government is trying to hide its concern by remaining silent about the increasingly influential diaspora media so as not to attract much public attention to the situation within its borders.

However, journalists within the Eritrean diaspora remain committed to working until there is free press and free exchange of information and communication in the country, and until those journalists suffering and dying in prison are either released unconditionally or are given fair trial without any further delay. Meanwhile, RSF, CPJ and other media rights groups will have to continue ranking the Eritrean government as the most intolerable abuser of press freedom unless it lives up to acceptable standards. Until an alternative social watchdog is created, free media is the best system available to investigate and expose incompetency, dishonesty and corruption in government.  

 

A newspaper announcing the outlawing of independent press in 2001

If the government’s objection was that the Eritrean independent media was not professional or experienced enough, it is because like the country itself, the media was barely a few years in the making when it was prematurely eliminated in 2001. The task of building free and responsible journalism is not a business for journalists alone but the government and people of the nation as well.

 

Michael Abraha is Juba based freelance journalist and former Chief Editor of South Sudan’s Pioneer newspaper

 

source : Doha Centre for Media Freedom

 
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