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A Country Without Journalism 

In Eritrea, imprisoned journalists resort to hunger strike in plea for help

Ten journalists are starving themselves to death in an unknown prison in a country few people have heard of. It has been six months since they were arrested and their newspapers shut down. Their hunger strike, which began over two weeks ago, is an effort to draw attention to their government's shutdown of all independent journalism in the country.

Maybe, starting here in Charlotte, we can pool our strength and help. These jailed journalists live in a little country called Eritrea, on the African side of the Red Sea, just north of Ethiopia. Their newspapers were shut down last October, and 10 of the journalists, including the editors of the largest and most influential of the papers, were hauled away to detention. They were kept from most contact with their families and with free-press organizations. Last week, after announcing their hunger strike, nine of them were moved by the government to a secret location, according to messages given their families. A 10th is said to be in a hospital as a result of beatings in prison, according to a press release.

These journalists are not statistics to me. I know most of them, because they were my students in three weeklong training programs financed by the US State Department over the past three years. What they lacked in experience they made up for in dedication to learning to be journalists in a country that had no experience with journalism. During breaks, we drank cappuccino in a cafe downstairs from the American Cultural Center. They took me to their favorite places for dinner and invited to me to their offices, which were usually drab rooms with peeling paint, sparse furnishings, a couple of computers and sometimes a single window.

When I first visited Eritrea in 1999, most of the journalists seemed to share their countrymen's allegiance to President Isaias Afworki, who had led the country's successful guerrilla war for independence from Ethiopia. Isaias was a sort of George Washington, first in war and first in the hearts of his countrymen. The country had just won another border skirmish with Ethiopia, and Eritreans were feeling pretty good. There was a constitution.

It turns out that Isaias is just another petty tyrant. Last fall he arrested some of his own ministers who had the temerity to suggest a faster pace toward elections. Eritrea is the only African country without an independent press, according to the Paris-based free-press organization Rapporteurs sans Frontiers (Reporters without Borders). The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, says more journalists are in prison in Eritrea than in any other African country.

"They are being held in very bad conditions, and we are worried about their health," says RSF Secretary-General Robert Menard. "All they have done is express their opinions, and nothing justifies their lengthy imprisonment. As far as we know, they have not been formally charged with anything, and their detention is arbitrary and illegal."

"We are greatly disturbed by the senseless and continued detention of our Eritrean colleagues, who were jailed simply for doing their job," says CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. "We urgently call on President Isaias Afworki to ensure their immediate and unconditional release."

The journalist reported to have been beaten, Dawit Isaac, was one of my students. He worked for the largest and most pro-government of the papers, Setit. It was his newspaper that most clearly signaled the end of naivete about President Isaias' democratic intentions. The paper wrote an editorial gently suggesting it was about time to implement the six-year-old constitution.

On the last day of my visit in October 2000, six journalists were rounded up by soldiers. Most were released in a few days, but Yousuf Mohamed Ali, editor of Tsigenay, and Milkias Mihretab, editor of Keste Debena, were held for five months.

But by last April, all had been released. I returned for a third training program. And then came that second October roundup.

Milkias and another reporter avoided capture and are now in Washington seeking asylum. Two others, including Setit editor Aron Berhane, eventually escaped and are in Sudan, but their visa requests are long shots.

Word of their hunger strike came in a message smuggled from the Police Station One detention center in Asmara, Eritrea's capital, and said they would refuse food until they are either released or charged and given a fair trial.

We can do two things here in North Carolina. One is to sign a petition organized by Eritrean expatriates at www.delina.org/ejae/. Another is to ask our Washington representatives to press the State Department to increase the attention on this issue through its Eritrean embassy. Go to www.house.gov/myrick/ and www.house.gov/watt/ to write an e-mail to US Reps. Sue Myrick and Mel Watt. Send an e-mail to Jesse Helms, who has long experience in pressuring the State Department, at jesse_helms@helms.senate.gov, or to Sen. John Edwards, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, by filling out the e-mail form at edwards.senate.gov/contact.html. *

Neil Skene is senior vice president of Creative Loafing, Inc.

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