Journalists still hunted down nine years after September 2001 purges

The Eritrean authorities continue to gag all forms of free expression and recently arrested another journalist as he was trying to flee the country, Reporters Without Borders said today, on the eve of the ninth anniversary of the start of a brutal political purge in Asmara on 18 September 2001. The organisation wrote to the British authorities yesterday urging them to prosecute one of the purge’s organisers, who now lives in Britain.

Journalist Eyob Kessete of state-owned radio Dimtsi Hafash’s Amharic-language service was arrested at some point during the past summer as he was trying to cross the border into Ethiopia. It is not known where he is now being held. After his first arrest for trying to defect at the start of the summer of 2007, he was held in several prisons until relatives obtained his release in late 2008 or early 2009 by acting as guarantors.

The fate of around 20 other imprisoned journalists is still cloaked in the same oppressive official silence. There is still no news, for example, about Said Abdulhai, a journalist who was arrested during the last week of March. It is still not clear where Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaac of the now-closed daily Setit, who was arrested on 23 September 2001 in Asmara, is being held. A new collection of his writings, entitled “Hope – The Tale of Moses’ and Manna’s Love and other texts” is to be unveiled next week at Sweden’s Göteborg book fair.

The September 2001 round-ups, the closure of all the privately-owned media and the arrests of the main newspaper publishers began a period of terror from which Eritrea still has not emerged because of the intolerance and paranoia of its leaders. Nowadays, there are no independent media, foreign reporters are unwelcome and journalists working for the state media must enthusiastically peddle government propaganda and, if they cannot follow orders, they have no choice but to flee the country.

Reporters Without Borders wrote yesterday to Scotland Yard’s War Crimes Department to ask about the state of its investigation into Naizghi Kiflu, an Eritrean citizen resident in Britain. As information minister and presidential adviser at the time of the 2001 crackdown, he could be arrested and prosecuted under article 134 of the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, which punishes torture.

In May 2008, Reporters Without Borders issued a report entitled “Naizghi Kiflu, the dictatorship’s eminence grise” that detailed the role he played in Eritrea’s repressive apparatus. Read the report.

Eritrea has come last in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index for the past three years. It is ranked 175th out of 175 countries. The onetime hero of Eritrea’s liberation struggle, President Issaias Afeworki now oppresses his people and has become Africa’s most ruthless dictator. He is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Predators of Press Freedom”.

Sign the petition for the release of journalists imprisoned in Eritrea.

Picture : President Issaias Afeworki (Reuters / Ho New)

Reporters Without Borders defends imprisoned journalists and press freedom throughout the world. It has nine national sections (Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland). It has representatives in Bangkok, New York, Tokyo and Washington. And it has more than 120 correspondents worldwide.

© Reporters Without Borders – 47, rue Vivienne, 75002 Paris – France

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