World Press Freedom Day: Eritrea

In 2018, Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index ranked Eritrea as second to last in press freedom and with World Press Freedom Day coming up on May 3, 2019, it’s important to reexamine this northeast African country known as the “North Korea of Africa.”  Squeezed between Sudan and Ethiopia, Eritrea sits along the southwestern coast of the Red Sea in a volatile region called the “Horn of Africa.” Its name originated from the Italians who colonized the area during the late 1800s “Scramble for Africa.”  After WWII, the country came under British-UN control until 1951, when the UN General Assembly voted to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia and not grant the country full sovereignty. Decades of insurgence followed the U.N.’s decision, particularly after the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was established, a political and oppositional party dominated by Muslim warlords and infighting.

As the Ethiopian-Eritrean power struggle escalated over the years, ELF sent their fighters to countries like Syria and Cuba for training. In the late 1960s, ELF political figure Isaias Afwerki travelled to China for military training and instruction on party-forming in exchange for Chinese weapons and ammunition. There he became radicalized and after ELF imploded in the early 1970s, Afwerki and his associates started a secret political party (with Marxist-Maoist overtones) called the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party (the “People’s Party). A second group that splintered off from ELF established the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) which then became secretly guided by Afwerki’s People’s Party for almost the entirety of its existence.

In 1993, Eritrea finally gained its independence from Ethiopia and on May 24, 1993, Afwerki was declared head of the Republic of Eritrea while the EPLF became the state’s ruling party. But despite the country’s newfound freedom, it became alarmingly enslaved under Afwerki’s totalitarian rule.



Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki

In 1994, the EPLF changed their name to the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and it remains the ruling political party—the only political party—in Eritrea today. The government also drew up a constitution but it was never implemented and national elections that were scheduled for 1997, were postponed and then cancelled all together. In 2001, high-ranking government officials known as the G-15, many of whom had worked closely with Afwerki during Eritrea’s fight for independence, pushed for democratic reforms leading to their arrest and imprisonment. At least nine of them are now considered dead.

It became clear early in Afwerki’s presidency that political dissent and opposition were not tolerated and he has spent the last twenty-five years refining his iron fist rule over the country. According to a 2006 WikiLeaks cable, then-U.S. Ambassador Scott H. DeLisi reported to the CIA, Ethiopia, France, Sudan, and the U.K. that the PFDJ-GSE (Government of the State of Eritrea) had established a “corporate umbrella for numerous party-owned businesses” called the Hidri Trust which controls or is a major shareholder in “every significant business” in the country.

The trust has little to no accountability, its “off-the-books” activities may include weapons purchases, and President Afwerki and other government officials are the major shareholders which allows for the government to control and manipulate the entire economy. But it’s not just the economy that Afwerki’s regime appears to control, it’s every aspect of an Eritrean’s life, as well.



Class in session at Sawa

After gaining independence from Ethiopia, the Eritrean government introduced a mandatory military service called the “National Service” which requires all high school seniors serve for a total of eighteen months after which time they are released. However, during the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian War over a border dispute (among other things), President Afwerki used the conflict to extend citizens’ military duty indefinitely, effectively creating what has become a state-run slavery system.

DeLisi also described a youth campus located in the village of Sawa and about four hours west of the country’s capital Asmara, as a “military training” facility where the government forces children between grades 8-12 to receive training and political instruction. The government initiated the compulsory training in 1994, and seven years later it became an “ROTC-like boarding school,” overseen by the Ministry of Defense where all 12th grade students must spend their last year of school. Military officials teach the children how to handle weapons while members of the political party PFDJ “serve as educators for political indoctrination.”

Food on campus is sparse despite students being forced into hard labor and there have been reports of sexual abuse.  Not surprisingly, on the day children leave for Sawa, DeLisi’s cable reported that families could be seen crying at the bus pickup sites. To make matters worse, parents are not allowed to communicate with their children while they live at Sawa and students are forbidden to leave. In one incident, two students were shot for trying to cross the border. The “campus” is still operating and in 2017, the government graduated their “30th round of military batch.”

Of course, the Eritrean government doesn’t just shoot students trying to cross the border although this level of brutality exemplifies just how far Afwerki’s regime is willing to go to control the population. Anyone who tries to escape Eritrea risks being murdered or having their family members imprisoned indefinitely.  The route to safety is just as risky and harrowing:  Other countries may return escapees, smugglers often times abuse them, and some are killed for organ trafficking. Those fleeing also face being sexually assaulted, kidnapped for ransom, or drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. But according to Human Rights Watch, “Despite the mortal danger of trying to escape the country, Eritrea’s most significant export over the past decade has been its fleeing citizens.”

In 2015, the U.N. released a report accusing Afwerki’s government of “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations,” and possibly having committed crimes against humanity. Members of sports teams have repeatedly used the opportunity to play abroad as a means to escape the government’s ruthlessness and in 2015 alone, ten members of Eritrea’s soccer team escaped while playing in Botswana. Headlines across the world read, “Eritrea’s Soccer Team Defects. Again.”

However, fleeing the country is one thing, escaping Afwerki’s control is quite another. If you happen to be one of the fortunate few granted approval to travel overseas, say, on a foreign student scholarship and you don’t return, you are forced to pay a 2% tax back to the Eritrean government—regardless of where you live in the world—or risk family members being persecuted and/or imprisoned. In 2018, the Netherlands expelled a top Eritrean diplomat over this practice stating:

“In light of the continuous intimidation and force used in the collection of diaspora tax and its resulting social and political unrest, the cabinet is forced to give the Eritrean government a power signal.”

Besides the National Service, indoctrination, forced separation of families, and the diaspora tax, Eritrea’s government runs a totalitarian regime where citizens and journalists are surveilled, arbitrarily detained without charge or trial, held incommunicado, or they simply disappear. For instance, in 2012, Ciham Ali Abdu, a 15-year-old who holds both American and Eritrean citizenship, was imprisoned after her father, a former minister, fled the country. She hasn’t been seen since.



Missing: Dawit Isaak

It’s not surprising to find that there is not a free press in Eritrea, either.  While the G-15 were being arrested in mid-September 2001, so were journalists around the country as the government cracked down on dissent by closing all independent media outlets.  Founders, editors, and journalists from six major outlets including the Admas, KesteDebena, Meqaleh, Setit, Tsigenay, and the Zemen, were rounded up and imprisoned over the course of a few days. Detainees included:

Said Abdelkadir
Medhanie Haile
Temesken Ghebreyesus
Matheos Habteab
Dawit Habtemichael
Aaron Berhan
Dawit Isaak
Fessaha Yoannes
Yousif Mohammed Ali
Amanuel Asrat
Seyoum Tsehaye

None of these men were charged or brought to trial and at least six of them are presumed dead.  In 2002, Hami Mohammed Said from Eri-TV was arrested and in December 2006, Tesfaldet Kidane and Salih Gama were imprisoned as alleged terrorism suspects.  They were released ten years later.

On February 19, 2009, Radio Bana was raided and its staff was arrested including a British citizen, according to a WikiLeaks cable sent by then-U.S. Ambassador Ronald McMullen.  Eight staff members were released four years later while Yirgalem Fesseha and Issak Abraham appear to still be missing.

Sitaneyesus Tsigeyohannes from Eritrea Profile was arrested and has been missing since 2009, and four journalists from the government-controlled radio station, Dimtsi Hafash, were imprisoned in 2011.  There are still others like Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu, Meles Negusse, and Mulubrahan Habtegebriel who were all arrested in 2009.  Mebrahtu and Negusse were released after six years while Habetegebriel is still missing.  And the list goes on.

Another WikiLeaks cable from former U.S. Ambassador Jennifer McIntyre with a subject line that reads, “Going, Going, Nearly Gone: Human Rights and Civil Liberties in ER,” states that Eritrea had “abandoned the path of human rights” to become one of the most restrictive and controlling societies in the world.” It’s also one of the poorest where 90% of the rural population doesn’t have electricity and its citizens are subjected to a state-run slave labor system, arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings, and torture. Elections, due process, and civil liberties do not exist nor does freedom of speech, press, or religion.

The Wall Street Journal reported that, “While Syrians are fleeing an obviously terrible and documented civil war, Eritreans are fleeing abuses which to the rest of the world are largely invisible because of the regime’s secretiveness.” The U.N. has estimated that at least 400,000 Eritreans have escaped the country, not including those who died or got stranded during their escape. And without a free press there is no one inside the country to report on the atrocities committed by the Eritrean government. It’s important to note, however, that organizations like the U.N., Reporters without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists have repeatedly reported on Afwerki’s attacks on Eritrean citizens and the media.

WikiLeaks has also published important documents on Eritrea which are in the public’s interest.  For instance, one cable reported that Afwerki still has “strongly positive feelings for the Chinese and an unfortunate attachment to a Maoist ideology that still seems to guide his views on governance”—a governance which has led to a “silent, secret system of terror,” where escapees of his barbaric system are “shot on sight.”

At one point, former Ambassador McIntyre wrote, “We believe the time is right for us to show leadership in exposing Eritrea’s human rights abuses and restrictive policies, and we believe the time is right to press for a change,” and yet nothing has happened. On the contrary, the U.S., knowing full well that an American child was kidnapped and imprisoned by Eritrean authorities more than six years ago and hasn’t been seen since, is more engaged in toppling a democratically elected president in Venezuela over oil, than coming to the aid of Eritreans who are living a humanitarian nightmare.



With World Press Freedom Day on the horizon, it is vital that citizens around the world speak up for a free and protected press so that the atrocities committed under dictatorships like Afwerki’s can be exposed. WikiLeaks has given the world unique insight into Eritrea’s regime and yet its founder and publisher, Julian Assange, has been arbitrarily detained in the heart of London for over eight years now much the same as Eritrean journalists Yirgalem Fesseha, Sitaneyesus Tsigeyohannes, and Mulubrahan Habtegebriel.

And despite the U.S. and U.K. proclaiming themselves as beacons of freedom, these Western regimes are no better than Isaias Afwerki.  The lessons to be taken from Eritrea is that it’s time we become more compassionate towards refugees and try to understand what it is exactly that they’re fleeing.  It’s also time for every detained journalist and media worker around the world like Assange, Fesseha, Tsigeyohannes, and Mulubrahan to be released and protected.  And it’s well past time that those in power who arrest, detain, prosecute, or even murder journalists be brought to justice.

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