By Jackie Marchildon
In January 2002, Eritrean journalist Aaron Berhane ran to freedom across the Eritrean/Sudanese border, leaving behind his wife and three children in what is now considered to be one of the most censored countries in the world.
“We were encountered by the patrolling army; I had no choice but to flee to Sudan. And they did open fire. I don’t even know how I managed to flee,” says Berhane, describing the end of his escape from Eritrea.
On September 18, 2001, Berhane’s independent newspaper Setit was shut down. He knew the government would be coming for him soon after. When they finally arrived to arrest him five days later, he had already gone into hiding, where he remained for three months to evade the government’s search for outspoken journalists. Finally, he fled the country through Sudan. His family eventually joined him in Canada, but only after eight years. They had to be safely smuggled out of Eritrea, a necessary tactic since the country refused to grant their exit visas.
Berhane’s persecution was part of a broader trend. September 2001 marked a brutal crackdown on free expression in Eritrea, with seven independent media offices being shut down and 10 journalists arrested. Yet the imprisonments of 2001 were just the beginning of such violations in the country. In 2012, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) declared Eritrea to be the most censored country in the world, stating that, “no independent domestic news outlets have been allowed to operate since a widespread September 2001 government crackdown on dissent.”
According to CPJ, journalists suspected of sending information outside the country can be arrested and jailed without charge.
Such was the case with the press crackdown of 2001, when journalists were arrested and imprisoned for maintaining their roles within the media. Many have yet to see family members or receive due process.
Asked to describe the state of free expression in Eritrea, Berhane says it is “getting worse, day after day, year after year.” According to Berhane, there had once been hope for free expression, after the initial border war ended in 1991. “We were really optimistic for things to get better,” Berhane explains. The constitution was ratified in 1997, to be implemented in 1998, and “there was a beginning of a free press; the government seemed more tolerant.”
But in 1998, President Isaias Afewerki halted implementation of the constitution when the border conflict with Ethiopia resumed. “Everything changed,” says Berhane. All Eritreans were called upon to join the army, and “the response to any presented issue was, ‘You have to wait, we are at war now.’ That has been the excuse ever since, even until now,” says Berhane, despite the resolution of the conflict in 2000.
“People used to meet and chat, discuss issues, but no more,” explains Berhane. According to him, Eritreans cannot gather in a group of more than seven people without permission, and “people don’t discuss anything, people are afraid now.”
Dan Connell, journalism and African politics teacher at Simmons College, explains that the crackdown was much less a response to war and more of a resistance to opening up the country. According to Connell, there was a buildup to the crackdown on freedom of expression that took place in 2001; there was “a press explosion during 1997 and 1998 during the border war, and there was a lot of voiced criticism. In 2000, things came to a head,” says Connell.
“The President became very hostile to any criticism, and he began to arrest people. Many of his entourage went into exile,” says Pierre Beaudet, Professor, School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa, “the war with Ethiopia resumed and it was a slow descent into hell.”
Both Connell and Beaudet believe there was brief hope for the country after it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, but Connell points out that, “the resistance to this [open expression] was deeply embedded in the culture.” Connell says that there was already a limit to expression of dissent, seen in throughout the 1990s in instances such as the government shutdown of NGOs.
Berhane adds to this by saying that the government continued to destroy all institutions in the country, including their only university, which closed in 2006. President Isaias Afewerki sought to maintain power by eliminating all opposition.
“There is no open press in Eritrea, anywhere,” says Connell. Although Connell is strong in saying that the international community, specifically Canada and the US, should not attempt to influence the situation within Eritrea, he does stress that there are other ways in which we could help – by supporting Eritrea’s diverse media within the country, ensuring they are receiving footage from outside. “It’s so bad now, it’s hard to imagine it getting worse,” says Connell of the state of free press.
Sheila B. Keetharuth, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea, confirms that the government needs to make changes, but her position is a difficult one, as the government continues to deny her entry to the country. “The few updates I have do not show any improvement in the broader human rights picture. If there were improvements, we would not witness a monthly exodus of about 2000 to 3000 Eritreans fleeing the country despite dangers they face on escape routes and an uncertain future.”
Keetharuth affirms the need for free expression within the country, “People should not have to look over their shoulder when expressing themselves.” She acknowledges that there needs to be “a complete shift in that the government should stop the culture of denial that human rights are being violated.” She believes then it would be easier to tackle all violations, including free expression.
Although her mandate offers the opportunity for open dialogue with the Eritrean government, some would argue that the government itself actually needs to change completely, rather than just its views.
“The only solution now is that this President has to go,” states Berhane, with conviction. He does not see hope for a governmental transition into democracy or any form of improvement – the power needs to change hands.
To hear more about Aaron Berhane’s story and the culture of impunity in Eritrea, join us on Tuesday, November 19, for The sting of impunity: A live chat with exiled journalist Aaron Berhane
Jackie Marchildon is a freelance journalist currently based in Toronto.