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Eritrea's new status: last for press freedom

Written by Tom Rhodes

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has rated Eritrea as the most repressive country in the world for press freedom and censorship. Coincidentally, it also has the lowest level of internet usage in the world – with mobile technology blocked by government.

When one considers countries with some of the worst press conditions globally the predictable propaganda from North Korean broadcasters or the Salafist intolerance to religious debate in Saudi Arabia come to mind, so do China and Zimbabwe. Few, however, look to the small, relatively new African country Eritrea, as the most repressive. But an annual report, "Attacks on the Press" conducted by the press freedom group, the CPJ, rates Eritrea the most censored country in the world, trumping other authoritarian regimes such as China or Azerbaijan due to the government's blanket censorship on critical reporting and extremely repressive tactics used to silence the press.

No independent press is allowed to operate and the last accredited foreign journalist, Agence-France Presse correspondent Peter Martell, was expelled in 2007. The last private media outlets were banned in September 2001 during a massive crackdown on the press and senior political dissidents, jailing at least ten journalists without due process. After private newspapers such as Setit published views of dissenting senior politicians who had fought for the country's 1993 independence and pushed for democracy and a progressive constitution, the press crackdown began. "September 11, 2001, changed everything in Eritrea," says exiled Eritrean journalist and former chief editor of Eritrea's now-banned Setit, Aaron Berhane. "President Isaias Afewerki seized an opportunity he badly wanted: He was able to justify crushing the independent press and destroying any potential opposition with vague, unproven assertions of conspiracy. The spirit of public debate or even discussion was stifled with the closure of all independent papers. The country was shrouded in fear." The conditions jailed journalists experience are horrible. According to an interview with a former guard of the remote Era'Ero Prison in Eritrea who escaped in 2010, inmates are handcuffed and kept in cells for 23 hours in excruciating heat and allowed to wash once per week. Although unable to fully confirm, CPJ research suggests that possibly five of those journalists arrested in 2001 may have died while in custody.

While some critical opposition-led news sites and radio stations exist, their penetration into the country is often blocked or inaccessible. The Eritrean government has secretly engaged in jamming radio signals from a place called Track-B, located southwest of Asmara, an exiled Eritrean journalist said. The facility was established in 1943 as a U.S. Army radio station and was solely constructed as a relay station, given Eritrea's geo-strategic location and for the purposes of eavesdropping on Soviet communications. The facility had specially constructed domes for that purpose and that was what the Eritrean government uses in jamming radio signals, the same source said.

The Mobile-Internet revolution that has spread across the African continent remains blocked in Eritrea. Fearing the spread of Arab Spring uprisings, Eritrea scrapped plans in 2011 to provide mobile Internet for its citizens, limiting the possibility of access to independent information. While Internet is available, it is through slow dial-up connections whereupon less than 1 percent of the population goes online, according to U.N. International Telecommunication Union figures. The sole telecommunication provider, the state-owned Eritrea Telecommunication Services (EriTel) charges citizens roughly US$ 47 to register and attain permission from authorities, local journalists said. This is a significant burden in a country where the average per-capita income is roughly $500 and partly explains why only 5.6 percent of the population owns a mobile phone, the lowest level in the world.

Even those working for state media live in constant fear of imprisonment, inducing a steady flow of Eritrean journalists to flee the country on an annual basis. Eritrea holds many ignominious titles. The small country has the fifth highest rate of journalists fleeing its borders globally and shares the title with Ethiopia for Africa's leading jailer of journalists with 17 imprisoned scribes, according to CPJ research. While Ethiopia makes nominal attempts to follow some level of jurisprudence, Eritrea arbitrarily arrests journalists without recourse to the law and, in some cases, without any clear reason. In 2009, security forces raided the government-controlled Radio Bana and arrested its entire staff, according to exiled journalists and a U.S. diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaks, a year later. Eight of those jailed were released in April 2013 while the remaining six were freed in January this year. Some exiled Eritrean journalists suspect the arrest was linked to their participation in a meeting in which one of the journalists spoke against the government but no one, not even those arrested from Radio Bana, seem to know for sure. Another claim from an exiled Eritrean journalist was that the former minister Ali Abdu said in a closed meeting that Radio Bana was instrumental in providing support to Radio Wegahta, an opposition radio station based in Ethiopia that broadcasts to Eritrea. "It is exactly this constant uncertainty that forces us to flee," said one exiled Eritrean journalist interviewed in late 2014, "you can never be sure whether you will end up in jail or, possibly worse, forced to re-enter the national service." Youth are often trapped in an open-ended national service that involves forcible engagement, working for government owned factories and offices for what could be a lifetime, local journalists said.

There was hope for change after the infamous former Information Minister Ali Abdu, ill famed for arresting journalists without charge or reason, fled the country in 2012. It was, after all, Abdu who ordered the arrest of the Radio Bana staff in 2009, local journalists said. But, with the exception of the release of Radio Bana staff, nothing has changed.

While the 2001 media crackdown was a turning point for press freedom conditions within the country, it is important to note that Eritrea, even prior to independence, has never supported free expression. According to a University of Pretoria study, "The Erosion of the Rule of Law in Eritrea: Silencing Freedom of Expression," soldiers were never informed of the situation of the long 30 year war of independence, where their conscripted children were, and whether they were killed in action or not. Just days before the declaration of independence, President Afewerki announced that fighters would remain without pay for another two years, the study said. After a small protest over this matter, the soldiers were all arrested and detained incommunicado despite their patriotic service.

This, perhaps, is the crux of the problem: after 30 years of extreme duress and self-sacrifice during the war of independence, few Eritreans would want to admit failures in post independent Eritrea. It is this self-denial along with repressive government tactics against the populace that ensures Eritrea's censored status continues. Eritreans either ignore the repressive press conditions or are too scared to speak out against them, their only recourse being to flee the country. A U.N. report in June 2014 estimated that around 4,000 migrants left the country on a monthly basis. Journalists who flee and manage to escape the country's shoot-to-kill border policy routinely end up in neighbouring Khartoum, Sudan, whereupon the normalization of relations between the two countries in 2005 has made it far harder for exiled journalists. "I cannot tell who may be an Eritrean agent and live in constant fear of deportation," said one-exiled Eritrean journalist who fled to Khartoum in 2014. "If I am caught and deported it's basically a death sentence for me."

Given the constrictions Eritreans inside the country face, the only hope may come from younger generations of Eritreans in the diaspora to challenge the anti-press status of the country. A proud and somewhat self-reliant executive leadership in Eritrea coupled with the international community's flippant concerns towards the small African nation inhibits international pressure for social reform. More support and focus on Eritrean diaspora efforts to counter Eritrean authoritarianism is needed. Organisations such as the "One Day Seyoum" campaign, launched by the Swedish-Eritrean niece of imprisoned journalist Seyoum Tsehaye, is designed to push for the release of her uncle and all Eritrean journalists. The tireless efforts of the brother of 2001 imprisoned Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaac, Esayas Isaac, is another. Until these efforts bear fruit, Eritreans in Asmara will never hear or read depressing accounts of Eritrean death tolls from capsized boats, overfilled with Eritrean refugees fleeing the country. The populace will remain in denial, perpetuating a dismal status quo.

Tom Rhodes is CPJ East Africa Representative for the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists and freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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