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article imageEritrea, the silent nation

By KJ Mullins     Sep 17, 2011 in World
Ten years ago press freedom was taken away in the country of Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa. In September 2001 all privately owned print media was closed down by the government with many of the native journalists arrested and detained in prison.
The last local government election in Eritrea took place in 2004 after the 2001 election had been postponed because the land was under construction. There has not been a general election since 1993.
Run by The People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the only political party allowed, the government leader is President Isaias Afwerki.
Independent media has been banned since 2001 and the country does not have one single foreign correspondent residing there. Without an independent voice human rights abuses go unreported allowing the government to abuse those opposed to the current system. There is no due process with prisoners sitting for years in jail.
Currently there are about 30 journalists being held by the government somewhere in the 314 prison camps and detention centers that litter the nation. At least four journalists have not survived the stark conditions where medical services are neglected, food is deprived and excessive heat is the way of life. Unknown numbers of journalists have simply disappeared.
Citizens deal with severe restrictions on their basic human rights. Basic freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion and travel are restricted or severely limited. Women, gays and lesbians, certain religious groups, disabled persons and those who are infected with HIV are abused and discriminated against. Young girls face female genital mutilation is prevalent in rural areas. Workers rights are limited and children are forced into labour.
The restrictions are not just limited to the nations citizens but to humanitarian agencies, the United Nations, foreign residents and foreign diplomats. Even in the face of consular emergencies foreign diplomats are required to apply for travel permits 10 days in advance. Those applications are often not answered or refused outright.
People in Eritrea are facing mass executions. In April 24 people were executed in the gold mining areas of Hademdem and Fankon in the Gash-Barka region according to local reports. Among those killed were government officials and journalists.
In 2003 Yosuf Mohamed Ali, a journalist, and Aster Fessehasion, and former minister Salih Kekiya died due to the excessive heat within a three day period while in prison.
It's not uncommon for people to be arrested on political grounds. One of the most famous cases was the mass arrest of several hundred people in 2001 who were said to have spoken against the government's actions. Several of those detained were tortured to death and others still remain behind bars. The International Red Cross has been denied access to these prisoners.
It is also not uncommon for military and government officials to seize property of private citizens so that they may house their own families.
Eritrea has three newspapers, three radio stations and two television stations run by the government. There is no private broadcasting or media of any other kind within its borders. Foreign publications must met the government's approval. Only those who have the means to buy satellite dishes have any media access to the outside world.
That hasn't stopped dedicated journalists who have left the nation. After the 2001 ban several radio stations were founded from exile such as Radio Assenna and Radio Erena in Europe. These actions have not been without risk. In 2009 the entire staff of Asmara-based Radio Bana was detained. It is not known where these people are at this time, it is assumed that they are still alive and in detention.
Citizens are 'allowed' to use the Internet but it is common knowledge that their emails and viewing are monitored by the government. About 4 percent of the population uses the Internet according to statistics from the International Telecommunication Union. Much of these use is in major cities like Asmara where there are monitored Internet cafes. The majority of Eritreans do not have access to the Internet.
This is the first in a series of reports. During the next seven days reports will continue on the conditions of the nation of Eritrea and what journalists in that nation are facing. All research material has been provided privately by a member of PEN Canada.
More about Eritrea, media ban, Human Rights
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