The Committee to Protect Journalists calls it “the world’s leading jailer of journalists.” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) proclaims, “Africa’s youngest country is still the continent’s largest prison for journalists.” The International Press Institute says simply, “Eritrea remains one of the world’s worst environments for journalists.”
The press, though, is not the only government target. Conditions in this small African country along the Red Sea are just as dreadful for others. A Christian news service based in Santa Ana, Calif., announced on Sept. 8 that it had received documents proving thousands were suffering in Eritrean prisons.
“Newly compiled statistics smuggled out of Eritrea indicate that at least 1,918 Eritrean citizens are imprisoned and being subjected to torture and forced labor because of their religious beliefs,” according to Compass Direct News.
Similar accounts were issued this year in the 2005 annual report by Amnesty International.
But the largest problem in the country may be insufficient food for everyone. AI said that last year alone “two-thirds of the population were dependent on international emergency food aid. They included 70,000 people living in internally displaced people’s camps since the war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000, and refugees who had returned from Sudan.”
Eritrea is one of the poorest nations in the world, according to the United Nations World Food Programme. The country ranked 161 out of 177 and will need food for 2.3 million people this year.
State of the media
* At least 13 journalists since 2001 have been “secretly held, somewhere in the country, without ever going before a court, seeing a lawyer or speaking to their families,” explains the RSF 2006 annual report. “The government … claims that they are traitors to the country, Ethiopian spies or deserters. It is not known if they are still alive.”
* The government unofficially banned the private press and independent journalists in 2001 because of threats to national security.
* There are four state-supported newspapers in Eritrea; two are aimed specifically at youth.
* Eritrea is the only African country with no privately owned news media.
Headlines from independent sources
NAIROBI — Eritrea said that five U.N. security staff members recently expelled were spies and challenged the world body’s secretary-general, Kofi Annan, to “put his house in order” before criticizing the Horn of Africa state. In a further deterioration of already dire relations with the United Nations, Eritrea told the five men to leave within 24 hours. “I think they have left by now,” Information Minister Ali Abdu told Reuters in Nairobi by telephone. “They were engaged in spying and recruiting for the purpose of subversive actions.” (Reuters Sept. 7)
MOGADISHU — Somalia’s interim government says Eritrea is sending troops and weapons to Somalia to bolster an increasingly powerful Islamist movement. Somalia’s envoy to the African Union’s Peace and Security Council says three ships with 1,500 Eritrean troops have docked in the Somali ports of Warshika and Merka. He also told the council in Ethiopia … that arms have been shipped from Eritrea to Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia. (Voice of America Aug. 26)
ASMARA — The European Commission is considering action against Eritrea in protest of food aid being sold and proceeds being used for government work programs. (BBC News Aug. 4)
A brief history of Eritrea
1962: Ethiopia annexes Eritrea; war of independence begins.
1974: Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie overthrown in a military coup.
1991: People’s Liberation Front captures capital and forms provisional government.
1993: Eritrea becomes independent and joins the United Nations.
1999: Eritrean-Ethiopian border clashes turn into a full-scale war.
2000: Eritrea and Ethiopia sign a ceasefire agreement.
2005: Eritrea orders the expulsion of North American, European and Russian peacekeepers monitoring its border with Ethiopia. (BBC News)
Bruce C. Swaffield is a professor of graduate studies in journalism at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. In addition to working as a professional journalist for many years in South Florida, Swaffield has been teaching journalism and writing since 1983. He is a member of the SPJ International Journalism Committee and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.