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article imageJournalist from Eritrea discusses censorship, hiding, indie media Special

By KJ Mullins     Sep 19, 2011 in World
What happens when going to work at a legitimate business means a prison sentence? Would you take the risk or hide hoping for a means of escape? In Eritrea that is a reality for journalists. Aaron Berhane lived that nightmare.
For one of the co-founders of the Eritrean newspaper Setit hiding until he could escape was the only way to be able to keep his voice.
Aaron Berhane was born in Asmara, Eritrea in 1969. He was one of the first graduates of the Journalism program at the University of Asmara.
For months Aaron Berhane hid inside Eritrea while journalists around him were gathered up and imprisoned. In January 2002 he managed to escape the country with the help of International PEN but without his family. He came to Canada gaining political asylum. Since that time he was selected for a Human Rights Watch Hellman/Hammett grant and a prestigious Donner/CJFE Journalist at Risk Fellowship at Massey College. In 2005 he was awarded that PEN-Lecturer-in Residence position at George Brown College in Toronto in 2005.
By escaping Berhane is able to keep his voice heard but knowing that others left behind are slowly dying locked behind bars is not easy.
In a nation where the leader sees an independent media as a threat journalists are locked away, unable to let the outside world know the human suffering going on within the country's borders. It's a slow painful death for those whose very nature is to speak out.
For working journalists in Eritrea speaking to a foreigner is a risk. Just having tea with someone from outside can mean being arrested.
Today Berhane works in Toronto, Canada publishing Meftih, a monthly community paper. His wife and three children managed to escape last year from Eritrea and have joined him in Canada.
Journalist Aaron Berhane
Journalist Aaron Berhane
permission from Aaron Berhane
Aaron and I discussed his homeland, his escape and reuniting with his wife and children last year in Toronto during a phone interview this weekend.
For Aaron it's very frustrating that the mainstream media has largely ignored the plight of journalists in his homeland of Eritrea.
"It's very frustrating in getting the issue out. Main stream media is not bring the truth out. Because of that the outside world is not able to know what is happening within Eritrea," Aaron said sadly.
Ten years ago Aaron was very lucky, he had good sources who warned him to be very careful on September 18. From the time that Setit was shut down on September 18, 2001 until his daring escape the following January. Aaron did not sleep in his own bed.
"I was told not to be in the public places I usually went to. I may have been free and not imprisoned but living on the run is like being in prison without guards," Aaron said.
His family's every move was being monitored by the government. He couldn't endanger his wife or three young children while he tried to escape the country. That escape meant forging identification papers in order to move from city to city. From his home in Asmara to the Sudan border there are 16 check points where the guards had pictures of him. He hide at the home of one person, not related to him or his friends. No one knew where he was, not his family or any of his colleagues.
"I had to age myself. I added gray to my hair and dressed in the clothing of those in the low lands," Aaron said of the final escape plan that he took with two other colleagues, "In January we had the ID we needed and a trusted guide. We were able to clear the check points with no problems until we made it to the border."
The guide that Aaron and his colleagues was using had received about the guards being safe was wrong. As the men approached that final check point to freedom soldiers begun to shout for them to stop. For the escaping men it was a life or death decision to run, knowing that if they were captured they would be tortured, possibly to death.
"We ran. I ran faster than I had ever ran before as the soldiers opened fire on us. It was dark and I was jumping in bushes like a gazelle. For two hours I ran one way while the other two journalists ran the other. I listened as the gunfire followed the other two. Then it stopped. I waited for hours for my friends to join me fearing that they had been killed. That was January 6, 2002," Aaron spoke quietly, the memories still painful.
His colleagues were not dead but they had been captured. They remain in a prison camp to this day.
Alone in Sudan Aaron began the process of restarting his life but knew that at home his family was suffering. His brother and cousin were detained. While they had nothing to do with Aaron's escape they were held for two years and then released with no charges laid against them. Both men were warned, "Don't say anything", by the government. Aaron's wife was followed and questioned repeatedly by the police. She had no answers for them, she didn't know where her husband was.
"They abused her. The authorities made it difficult for her to travel or leave the country. I finally was able to get my wife and children smuggled out to Sudan and from there they came to Toronto in May 2010," Aaron said his voice faltering slightly as he thought of his family's years spent apart, "When I left my youngest son was only 6 months old. I met him again when he was nine. Such great joy, such a blessing. Yet I think about my colleagues and know that they do not have this joy. Their families are not allowed to visit them or speak to them. Their wives and children have no way to know about them. Not even the International Red Cross is allowed access to them. They remain in prison."
While Aaron and his family were apart he called as often as he could. His children asked him during each of those calls when he was coming home. "I had to say soon. It was very tough. I remembered my colleagues who couldn't even have these kind of phone calls. At least I had a chance to speak to my wife and my children."
Aaron said that the prison camps that house his fellow journalists in Eritrea are horrible places. Journalists are kept in shipping containers dealing with extreme heat during the day and then extreme cold during the long, lonely nights. They have no dreams of freedom.
How did this become the reality for his homeland? As the rest of the world watched the suffering of the United States following the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. the Eritrea quietly banned the private media. Before September 18, 2001 independent media was heavily censored but allowed to operate.
"We had to be very careful but we were still able to address the issues of the people at Setit. The government censored us, like all other media. We could say what we believed but had to carefully word it. I was taken to the police station often, at least once or twice a week to discuss what I had written. In Canada the government sees the press as a helper but in Eritrea we are eyed as the opposition. The president was only concerned with his own power," Aaron said adding, "In Canada there is no policing the media as long as you have the facts no one bothers you. In Eritrea there was much pressure on writing what the government wanted."
Aaron said that the turning point was when Setit published open letters of the G15, senior government officials, who criticized the president.
Telling the truth and getting your voice out is the heart of a journalist.
"We want to feel good inside about our work. If you don't let it out it hurts you," Aaron said, "The journalist sees their role as crucial if you do what you do well. In Eritrea the government looks at the lines written not at the facts. Until the facts are allowed to be freely expressed it will not be a free country."
Today Aaron knows that freedom. He is able to get a voice out from the darkness as he and his family enjoy their time together. Now 40 he takes joy in his children who are now 10, 13 and 18. The years apart are being replaced with happy memories. This summer he was able to take the kids to Canada's Wonderland and enjoy the Canadian National Expo. And yet for each happy memory he remembers those left behind, whose voices have been silenced. His voice now has to be louder, stronger in order for the world to hear one man's roar.
"My colleagues are imprisoned just because they are journalists."
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