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Oral Statement on Eritrea to the African Commission, October 2018

Wednesday 24 October 2018 - 5:19pm

Idris Said Aba Arre, one of the 12 journalists detained during September and October 2001

Presented to the African Commission by Musa Sheriff on behalf of PEN International

Madam Chairperson, honourable Commissioners, all protocols observed, PEN International would like to welcome the positive developments in Eritrea's relations with Ethiopia. We hope that the Eritrean authorities will embrace the potential for change inherent in the recent peace deal and the opening of the border and take meaningful steps to improve the situation for freedom of expression and human rights for its citizens.

Media freedom and freedom of expression in Eritrea are in a dire state. The country is recognised as one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a journalist, writer or thinker. For ten consecutive years, the annual Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea as the worst place in the world in which to be a journalist or media worker; Eritrea only relinquished this dubious distinction in 2017, when North Korea replaced it at the bottom of the rankings.

Eritrea is party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These treaties oblige Eritrea to protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression as well as other rights including the right to life and security; freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; a fair trial; freedom of thought and conscience; and freedom of association.

Eritrea is not complying with its obligation to protect these rights. Rather, as PEN International and other rights groups have so often highlighted, it openly violates them.

Since Eritrea gained independence in 1991, its journalists — both from independent and state media — have been subjected to systematic arbitrary arrests, intimidations, enforced disappearances, and in some cases, extra-judicial killings.

Since the government crackdown on dissent in September 2001, there has been no independent media in Eritrea.

As part of that crackdown, the government summarily detained a group of fifteen high-ranking government officials, known as the Group of 15 (G-15), who collectively challenged the increasingly authoritarian leadership of the Eritrean President. The government also shut down all seven privately-owned newspapers in the country, simply because they provided wider coverage of the critical views of the G-15.

Ten journalists were arrested during the September 2001 crackdown and a further two were detained the following month: Said Abdelkader, Yusuf Mohamed Ali, Amanuel Asrat, Temesgen Ghebreyesus, Mathewos Habteab, Dawit Habtemichael, Medhanie Haile, Dawit Isaac, Fesshaye Yohannes, Seyoum Tsehaye, Idris "Aba-Arre" Said and Sahle "Wedi-Itay" Tsegazeab. All remain detained incommunicado.

More media workers have been arrested since September 2001 and PEN International is aware of at least 16 journalists currently held in circumstances amounting to enforced disappearance, without charge or trial. There are concerns that some of these individuals may have died in the appalling conditions of Eritrean prisons, however such information is unverifiable as the Eritrean government refuses to release information about those held and has not replied to repeated enquiries made by the African Commission or the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea.

Those journalists who remain free work within a completely government controlled media, overseen by the Ministry of Information which sets a strict editorial line.

PEN International calls upon Eritrea to:

  • Clarify the fate and whereabouts of all disappeared journalists and other writers, and provide all of those still alive with independent medical assessments and access to adequate medical treatment;
  • Release immediately and unconditionally all disappeared journalists and other writers, and politicians arbitrarily detained;
  • Re-establish an independent media without constraints or interference and allow international media unfettered access to the country;
  • Abide by international obligations relating to the right to life, liberty and security of person, including by unconditionally releasing all political prisoners, civil society activists and journalists

For more information please contact Cathal Sheerin, Africa Programme Coordinator, at Tel: +44 (0) 207 4050 338