Eritrea, the Country of the Oppressed

11th October 2016  By Edoardo Iacobelli

Technological progress has provided great sources for global communication. The advancements have not only made it easier for us to communicate, but it also eases the fight to have basic human rights recognized. Human rights principles, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, provide us with the tools necessary to challenge authorities and the flaws within our systems. This happens through, for example, the spreading of information, helping us to learn and develop. Without any real effort to incorporate these rights, it is safe to say that it is impossible to have a truly free and democratic society. If freedom of speech and the press is respected, it will have a pretentative role towards human rights abuses, especially regarding state oppression. State oppression is, however, the case in Eritrea, the country of the oppressed.

eritrea_fact_squareAs an Eritrean citizen, you have the right to take part of a “wide” range of media outlets – at least if you compare it to North Korea. The media outlets include two daily newspapers, three radio stations and two television channels – all run by the government. The problems regarding the country’s unwillingness to adapt to International Human Rights standards are not new, and they are rather infamous. In fact, the government, with President Isaias Afewerki in the lead, has made a huge effort to diminish the rights of the press and the right to free speech since 1996, when the Press Proclamation Law was passed. The law can be viewed as the foundation of the problems we still see today. Controversially, the law proclaims that various news outlets must send any article to a government body to be examined before publishing. Furthermore, the law also states that every journalist must apply for a license before being granted the right to publish an article.

The problems escalated five years after the introduction of the Press Proclamation Law, with the Eritrean government’s crackdown on the free press in 2001. The crackdown found its highlight when a group of officials, and to some extent rulers, called out President Isaias Afewerki’s undemocratic rule and his government’s failure to guarantee human rights through its constitution. The group became known as the G-15 and a letter sparked a rebellion against the establishments, calling for a reform of the government. The situation was chaotic and huge consequences awaited. Eleven of the G-15 members were imprisoned, some of whom are according to credible reports now dead. Three members sought refuge in the United States and one, Muhammad Berhan Belata, left the group and re-joined the government.

The reprisals for the G-15 were not the only reaction that came from the government. In September, within the first week after the letter, many more people were arbitrarily detained, mainly on the grounds of treason or as a threat to National Security. Those arrested were either journalists or part of the leading news organizations in the country. Amongst those incarcerated were Seyoum Tsehaye, at the time the director of Eri-TV, Dawit Isaak, founder of the newspaper Setit, Mehanie Haile, editor of the paper Keste Debena, Yusuf Mohamed Ali, editor of the paper Tsigenay, Said Abdulkadir, founder of Admas, Amanual Asrat, editor of the paper Zemen, Fessehaye “Joshua” Yohannes, co-founder of the paper Setit, sports journalist Temeshghen Gebreyesus, Dawit Habtemichael, co-founder of Megaleh and Mattewos Habteab, editor and co-founder of Megaleh. The people mentioned are only some of the many who were detained.  None of these individuals were detained on grounds through the rule of law, and even though fifteen years has soon passed, the location and condition of these people is yet to be confirmed.

The importance lies in the fact that right now there are dozens of people unlawfully detained, a whole country is being suppressed and that the freedom of over six million people is being restrained.

Isaias Afewerki and his government have not been cooperative during this fifteen year long period, even though strong criticism and plenty of demands regarding the release of the prisoners have been made. Even though the measures taken by the Eritrean government can easily be regarded as grave breaches of international humanitarian law, little reaction and help has come from the international community. Some argue that it is because the events occurred at the same period of time as the September 11 attacks, which instead drew the world’s attention to the war on global terrorism. Others argue that it is solely because the international community simply does not care. Nonetheless, the reasons remain unimportant. The importance lies in the fact that right now there are dozens of people unlawfully detained, a whole country is being suppressed and that the freedom of over six million people is being restrained.

It is important to remark that this issue is not solely political. Family, relatives and loved ones are currently living completely in the dark about the situation of the person once close to them. Many of the families of the detainees have been fairly active in speaking out regarding the situation. One of these family members is the son of the perhaps most debated detainees of all, Dawit Isaak. In an interview in 2011, he stated that “We have seen how the question of our father has grown into a major political issue, but really it’s about us, a family who has been robbed of our father for ten years”. It is hard to imagine what it is like to have a loved one swiped away in that manner, especially when the family member is imprisoned in the world’s most censored country without the regime’s willingness to provide information or negotiate their release.

Few people really know in detail what is going on inside Eritrea, and even fewer that have been persecuted have managed to escape. Therefore the number of people who can tell about what is going on in Eritrean prisons is small, but still exist. In an interview with Aftonbladet, Semret Seyoum, colleague of Dawit Isaak and co-founder of the newspaper Setit, describes how his attempt to flee the country ended up with him behind bars.

It all began with a phone call and an unknown voice saying “prepare yourselves for the long march to exile, friends”! The call came at the time of the arrest of the G-15 members. Being a journalist, Semret knew that he had to escape. After the 23rd of September Semret and a friend hid underground for around hundred days before trying to make it to the Sudanese border, but they were not so lucky. An Eritrean patrol found them and Semret got caught. His friend on the other hand made it, luckily. Semret spent over a year isolated in tiny room, constantly exposed to mental and physical torture. He was released in 2003 and was forced to join the military forces. Eventually he managed to escape and cross the border to Sudan. He finally came to Sweden. Unluckily, the fate was not as kind to the colleague Dawit Isaak who is still imprisoned, reportedly alive.

As for Eritrea, the situation remains the same, even though there has a been an increase in the number of foreign journalists being allowed to travel to the country. The latest document published by the commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea describes the situation as slowly progressing, although the country was still ranked last for its nine consecutive year by Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, and ranked 166 out of 167 in the Information and Communication Technology development index.

The facts, in combination with the brief history of the country, tend to show that change is hard to achieve, yet that people are continuing to act against the government. This was shown three years ago when around two hundred soldiers seized the office of the national tv-channel Eri-Tv, recalling the message put forward by the G-15 and demanding constitutional change. Because of the country’s policy of censorship, the facts surrounding the attempt remain clouded. The attempt still shows however that if some people are willing to risk that much, then certainly there are more willing to the same.

It is safe to say that up until now not much has changed and many questions are still to be answered. Optimism exists, but people remain in fear and the country closed. The perhaps most problematic aspect lies in the fact that if change is to occur, it unfortunately relies on the government or civil society. Hopefully this will end in a non-violent solution, but in the meantime, the facts suggest that in the near future Eritrea will remain the country of the oppressed.

Edoardo Iacobelli
Edoardo Iacobelli was born in Italy, Rome in october 1995 and moved to Sweden in 2003. Right now he’s soon done with his first (BA) Degree in Human Rights in which he will specialize in Human Rights Law. He hopes to continue to study even after his specialisation to broaden his competence. He is also the current head-chairman of Amnesty International in the Malmö region, a political activist and writer on Eritrea for Untold Stories.

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