As World Press Freedom Day was being celebrated on 3 May, Eritrea continued to be the world’s worst country for journalists with around 30 currently held incommunicado in the most inhumane conditions and more arrests still being made, such as that of Said Abdulhai, one of the country’s most famous journalists, in the last week of March.
“Although half-hearted, international protests against Eritrea have finally began to materialise with the sanctions that the UN Security Council imposed at Uganda’s suggestion on 23 December,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We urge the international community to go further and to react with more firmness to the Eritrean regime’s crimes.”
The press freedom organisation added: “Can the European Union, in particular, continue to tolerate the silence and contempt of the authorities in Asmara while they arrest dozens of journalists and allow them to die in prison?”
New revelations by former guard at Eiraeiro prison camp
Eyob Bahta Habtemariam, a man who credibly claims to have been a guard at the notorious Eiraeiro prison camp in the desert of Northern Red Sea province, in northeastern Eritrea, fled the country last month and found refuge in neighbouring Ethiopia.
According to him, Dawit Isaac, a journalist with Swedish and Eritrean dual citizenship who was arrested in 2001, is in Eiraeiro. He says Dawit is being kept in solitary confinement in a 12-square-metre windowless cell and is in very poor physical and mental health.
This is the first time that a prison guard has claimed to know with such certainty where Dawit, the founder of the now closed daily Setit, is being held. Dawit has been transferred several times since his arrest. The authorities took him to the air force hospital in Asmara at one point last year. He was also admitted to Asmara’s Kedeste Mariam (St. Mary) Hospital, a psychiatric clinic, twice in 2009.
At least three other journalists who were arrested in the September 2001 round-ups are currently held in Eiraeiro. There are Amanuel Asrat, the editor of the privately-owned weekly Zemen, who is prisoner No. 25, freelance journalist Seyoum Tsehaye, who is prisoner No. 10 and Dawit Habtemichael, the deputy editor and co-founder of the newspaper Meqaleh, who is prisoner No. 12.
Some of the information provided by Eyob Bahta seems very credible and confirms the details about the Eiraeiro prison camp that Reporters Without Borders obtained in January 2008 , but Reporters Without Borders has strong doubts about some of what he has to say.
He confirms something that Reporters Without Borders has repeatedly said, namely that four journalists – Fessehaye “Joshua” Yohannes, Yusuf Mohamed Ali, Medhanie Haile and Said Abdulkader – have died in detention. However he maintains that Fessehaye took his own life in his cell in 2003, whereas, according to the information Reporters Without Borders obtained from other sources, he died on 11 January 2007 as a result of appalling prison conditions.
Eyob Bahta also sometimes seems to confuse Dawit Isaac with one of the other journalists held at Eiraeiro, Dawit Habtemichael. Nonetheless, Dawit Isaac’s brother, Esayas, who went to meet him in Ethiopia, says: “I am convinced that what this man says about my brother is true.”
A few releases, but new arrests
Reporters Without Borders has meanwhile had access to a reliable Eritrean source who says several journalists who had been held for a long time were released in 2009 on condition that relatives acted as guarantors for them ("released on bond"). They are Daniel Kibrom of state-owned Eri-TV’s Oromo-language service, Tura Kubaba of the Kunama service operated by state-owned radio Dimtsi Hafash (Voice of the Masses), “Johnny” Hisabu of Eri-TV and Eyob Kessete of Dimtsi Hafash’s Amharic service.
There is no news of several other journalists who are held incommunicado or who have “disappeared.”
Haythem Mebrahtu, a journalist employed by the Eritrean news agency Newsroom (and former Dimtsi Hafash employee), is believed to have spent about six months in the Adi Abeito military prison in the latter part of 2009 and early 2010.
As Reporters Without Borders has already reported, the entire staff (about 50 people) of Asmara-based Radio Bana were arrested when the station was raided in February 2009. It turns out that several of the journalists were quickly released but about 12 are still being held. No one knows what they are alleged to have done.
Why the well-known journalist Said Abdulhai (currently a foreign affairs ministry employee) was arrested in March and where he is being held are also unknown. Some sources think his place of detention may be Adi Abeito. A veteran of the independence war against Ethiopia and a graduate of Libya’s University of Benghazi in the 1980s, he was one of the media department’s founders after independence. He has at various stages run the information ministry’s press department, the Eritrean news agency and the main pro-government newspaper, published in Tigrinya, English and Arabic.
Eritrean President Issaias Afeworki, who is directly responsible for the repression of journalists and the closure of all the privately-owned media since 2001, was on the list of 40 “Predators of Press Freedom” which Reporters Without Borders released on 3 May. More information .
In an op-ed piece published in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, the Swedish section of Reporters Without Borders and other press freedom NGOs have called on the European Union to suspend aid for Eritrea “until the Eiraeiro death camp is closed and until its detainees are given medical treatment and are released or brought to trial.”
Reporters Without Borders wrote to Manfred Nowak, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, on 11 January asking him to do everything possible to obtain an improvement in the conditions of journalists imprisoned in Eritrea.
“We urge you to request access to the imprisoned journalists in order to enquire about their state of health and about prison conditions in Eritrea,” the letter said. “We also ask you to put enough pressure on the Eritrean government to ensure that they are tried or released.” Read the letter .
Picture : President Issaias Afeworki (Reuters/Ho New)