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[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”Abraham T. Zere comenzó su carrera en un periódico del Gobierno después de que se prohibieran todos los medios de comunicación independientes. Exiliado ahora en EE. UU., revela los peligros a los que se enfrentan los redactores en el “país más censurado del mundo“”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]
Abraham T. Zere es director ejecutivo de PEN Eritrea in Exile
Traducción de Arrate Hidalgo[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
It initially sounded like a joke; gradually it got serious and then tragic. A decade and a half later, it is catastrophe.
Fifteen years ago on 18 September, 2001, fellow students of University of Asmara and I were confined in two labour camps, GelAlo and Wi’A, for defying a requirement of unpaid summer work. We were kept in the camps, under harsh, atrocious living conditions and open to the weather that normally reaches 45 C (113 F) for about five weeks. As we were preparing to return home, we learned the government had banned seven private newspapers and imprisoned 11 top government officials.
The day after our homecoming, beaten down and demoralised, I went to meet Amanuel Asrat, chief editor of Zemen newspaper. About 10 days before that, he had received an article, in which I detailed our living conditions, that I had managed to get smuggled out of the prison camp. My piece was published in the last issue of the newspaper.
An atmosphere of fear pervaded Asmara. The environment had changed abruptly from heated and loud political debates to people resigning themselves to whispers and silence.
Unlike our previous meetings when Asrat greeted me with a joke, this time his dejection was obvious.
I do not remember exactly what we talked about, nor do I remember where we met. I assume Asrat must have expressed satisfaction about my safe return (as two students had died in the camp) and perhaps asked about my family. It’s possible we talked about the days before we had been sent to the prison camp. I do not know.
Yet, I remember vividly that we briefly talked about the letter I had sent him from the camp, and him explaining why he had published it anonymously. He didn’t want to incriminate me in its publication. Asrat also assured me that he had destroyed the original letter after publishing it.
What else do I remember from that encounter? Nothing substantial apart from him saying in a resigned tone, “Things are getting worse. It is inevitable we [the journalists] will also follow the political leaders [who had been imprisoned].”
At that point, we went our separate ways, probably hoping to meet some days later.
Before a second meeting with Asrat, I received the news of his and other journalists’ arrests. Even then, no one thought they would be held for more than a few days or weeks.
This is why journalist Dawit Habtemichael showed up at his workplace the next morning — even after security had come to his home the previous day and hadn’t found him. He reasoned that they would arrest him and release him shortly thereafter, a common occurrence at the time. He arrived confidently at his office, prepared to be arrested. He probably felt that fleeing would be an act of betrayal to his colleagues and friends.
Contrary to expectations, both Habtemichael and Asrat have been kept incommunicado in secret prisons with 10 other journalists and 23 political figures for the last 15 years. The Eritrean authorities have never clarified their fates, but some allegedly leaked information by an anonymous whistleblower indicates that only 15 of the total 35 prisoners are alive in the worst living conditions. The journalists who were incarcerated in connection with the press crackdown in 2001 are: Amanuel Asrat, Idris Said Aba’Are, Seyoum Tsehaye, Yousif Mohammed Ali, Said Abdelkadir, Medhanie Haile, Dawit Isaak, Dawit Habtemichael, Matheos Habteab, Fessaha “Joshua” Yohannes, Temesegen Ghebereyesus, and Sahle “Wedi-Itay” Tsegazeab. The leaked source allegedly states only five of the 12 were alive in deteriorating health conditions as of the beginning of this year.
So until the arrested journalists were transferred to an unknown prison outside the capital, many of us – and maybe even those who had been arrested – had high hopes that things would normalise and they would shortly be released from detention. Apart from the architects of repression, nobody guessed that the reign of terror and fear would last for 15 years – and continue to this day.
The culture of fear and hushed whispers gradually pervaded Eritrea until it became the nation’s signature reality. All roads began leading to dead ends. Silence and lack of cooperation became the only means of defiance that would not lead to arrest and imprisonment. The regime’s elimination of all independent media operating in the country conspired with a lack of public forums to effectively zombify Eritreans living inside the country.
Now it has reached a stage where failure to applaud unconditionally all actions taken by the government, no matter how irrational or arbitrary, can be considered as dissidence.
Over the last 15 years Eritreans have been pushed to the edge. Fear has been internalised. Nationals living inside the country are beaten down to docility and respond to orders and requirements without question. The country is plagued with harsh living conditions as a result of shortsighted policies, tattered institutions and a ragged social fabric characterised by mistrust.
Unlike 2001 when I was confident that the journalists would be released after a short time, in January 2015, I celebrated as miraculous the release of Radio Bana journalists after six years in prison without charges. Of course, I had no doubt they were all innocent, and the release of an earlier batch two years before confirmed this fact. Among them was a man who had been imprisoned for four years in place of another man who shared the same first name. In another nonsensical interrogation, related by one of the Radio Bana journalists who were released, authorities showed a print article as evidence of a broadcast allegedly aired by the opposition radio station.
No matter how long the Radio Bana journalists had stayed in prison or the sufferings they had gone through, their release was still big news to celebrate. Any release of political prisoners has been a rare occurrence in Eritrea, which is why many of us called the freed journalists to congratulate them. In a system that follows the perverted logic of “guilty until proven innocent,” it was important to celebrate their freedom because no one can guess the irrational acts the regime repeatedly takes.
With the state media parroting ceaseless propaganda and hate-filled editorials, citizens have mastered a special skill: how to read between the lines. Most Eritreans do not listen to what the president says in his regular, repetitious interviews with the national media. Rather they read his gestures, listen to his tone and scan his appearance to get a feel for the state of the country. Many Eritreans check the media just long enough to determine whether he looks healthy or not.
This accumulation of fear, with a stifled media and ubiquitous censorship, has earned Eritrea the title of “most censored country in the world”, according to Committee to Protect Journalists. It also has placed it as the last country in World Press Freedom Index, as reported by Reporters Without Borders.
More about Eritrea
Letter: Eritrea must free imprisoned journalists
Escape from Eritrea: Ismail Einashe
Yonatan Tewelde is an Eritrean photographer and filmmaker who is also working as PEN Eritrea in Exile’s webmaster and graphic designer
Mr Isaias Afewerki
President of Eritrea
Office of the President
PO Box 257
Dear President Afewerki,
We, the Youth Advisory Board of Index on Censorship — a global free expression organisation — are writing to you to call for the immediate release of imprisoned journalists in Eritrea.
We condemn the brutality and ruthlessness with which your regime has gagged expression and assaulted the rights of its citizens to access information.
The very constitution on which your regime governs upholds the rights of all to freedom of conscience. Yet journalists are imprisoned and go missing at the hands of your government. Eritrea has been ranked last on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index for the past eight years. At least 15 journalists are currently detained and, out of 13 journalists incarcerated in 2001, only four remain alive today.
Dawit Isaak, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist, was arrested in 2001 and has since been held incommunicado and in solitary confinement without any charges or a verdict. He has not seen a lawyer or his family for 13 years. Eritrean authorities have ignored the appeals of the European Union, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and a lawsuit before a Swedish court.
Seyoum Tsehaye, imprisoned for writing an article that criticised your regime, also has not seen anyone from the outside world since 2001 — including his daughter, who was born soon after his arrest.
Seyoum is a journalist, photographer and prisoner of conscience who earned fame for capturing moving images of Eritrea’s war of independence. That war ended in Eritrea’s first multi-party elections in which your party was victorious, but the people of Eritrea have not seen elections or democracy in any meaningful form since. For speaking out and fighting for freedom to be restored to his country, Seyoum has paid a heavy price.
Eritreans have been denied their human right to freedom of expression. International agencies and human rights groups have alerted the world to arbitrary imprisonment and torture within Eritrea. The government’s attempts to silence critical voices and media workers must end. We urge you to release all journalists from prison and respect international human rights law by granting all Eritreans their right to freedom of expression.
The Index on Censorship Youth Advisory Board
This letter was written by the Index on Censorship Youth Advisory Board, a group of 16-25 year olds drawn from the global community and who were moved to write this letter following a meeting with 2016 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards finalist Vanessa Berhe.
At just 16 years old Berhe set up the organisation One Day Seyoum to campaign for the release of her uncle Seyoum Tsehaye, a journalist who has been imprisoned in Eritrea since 2001. Show your support for the campaign here.
Campaigning for a free Eritrea since the age of 16, Vanessa Berhe can even count the Pope as a supporter. After founding One Day Seyoum to campaign for the release of her uncle, the Eritrean photojournalist Seyoum Tsehaye, Berhe has followed her uncle’s path, becoming a strong voice fighting for freedom in Eritrea.
“Eritrea has never had television,” says journalist Seyoum Tsehaye in a video interview filmed in 1994, three years after the country had won its independence. “This country waged a 30 years war, so it was completely devastated. There was no life in Eritrea, it was only a life of resistance. We resisted and we had a victory.”
The interview shows a hopeful Seyoum set on bringing television and free media to the Eritrean people. A few years later, in 2001, Seyoum and 10 Eritrean journalists were imprisoned without trial. They are still in prison today.
Their story is being forgotten, Berhe believes. Seyoum Tsehaye’s niece, Berhe’s parents were exiled from Eritrea during the 30 years of civil war. She grew up in Sweden, and at the age of 16 founded One Day Seyoum, a campaign to get her uncle out of prison.
“I was telling my friends in school about how my uncle has been imprisoned because of his journalism, and was astonished by the fact that people are so interested and passionate about this case,” Berhe told Index.
“Because Seyoum’s government let him down, the rest of us have to unite, go beyond borders, nationalities and skin colour and prove to Seyoum that he is our brother,” she said when she launched the campaign.
Tsehaye has never formally been charged with a crime, had a trial or been allowed visits from family. Little is known about where he is held, and his family has heard nothing from him since he went on hunger strike in 2002.
One of many prominent journalists to be arrested in 2001, Eritrea has had no independent media since, with only ministry of information-approved media allowed in the country. Press freedom in Eritrea is consistently ranked the lowest in the world, surpassing North Korea in its restrictions.
Berhe’s One Day Seyoum campaign uses social media, video, petitions, speaking engagements and offline actions to spread its message. Berhe has also worked to build a network of ambassadors across the world to help share her message – she now has more than 70 ambassadors across Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and North America.
And she has even had the support of the Pope. Representing Eritrea in a conference about illegal human trafficking at the Vatican, she had the chance to meet him. “I saw him and I brought a paper, took a pen and just wrote ‘I am the Pope and Seyoum is my Brother’… I told him about the case and he supported it of course and took a picture.”
She also used the opportunity to launch a second campaign, Free Eritrea. “With that campaign we aim to raise awareness about crucial issues that are going on with Eretria that also are being forgotten; national service, Eritrean refugees, the lack of freedom of religion, expression, and all those vital human rights that are being violated.”
When asked what her plans were in 2016, Berhe answered “We’re planning to free him.”