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Eritrean Reporter Detained for VOA Reporting, says Press Freedom Group - 2003-07-15

A reporter who works for VOA in Eritrea is reported to be held in a military camp after being taken into custody by government security agents. There are fears that his reporting may have led to his detention.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned the July 8 detention of Solomon Aklilu, a 32-year-old freelance reporter who works for VOA's Horn of Africa Service.

In a statement on Monday, the committee said Mr. Aklilu's detention was linked to a report he made for VOA on June 23. Mr. Aklilu reported that families of Eritrean soldiers killed in the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia wailed and cried when they heard the names of the soldiers who had died in the conflict.

In his report, in Amharic, Mr. Aklilu included a recording of the families as they received the news that their relatives were killed.

Mr. Aklilu's account contradicted the Eritrean state-run media version of the event, which said family members cheered and chanted when they heard the names, proud their relatives had died in the war.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says 10 days before Mr. Aklilu's detention, the Eritrean authorities had stripped the reporter of his press credentials.

Repeated attempts by VOA's East Africa Bureau to reach the Eritrean government were unsuccessful.

But Eritrea's Minister of Information Ali Abdu Ahmed told the French news agency, AFP, that Mr. Aklilu was not arrested but was, "picked up because he had not served the obligatory 18 months of national service in the army."

VOA says it has information indicating the reporter did in fact fulfill his national civilian service commitment, and was exempt from military service for medical reasons. The Eritrean Embassy in Washington says the government is examining those documents.

VOA Director David Jackson issued a statement Tuesday strongly objecting to Mr. Aklilu's detention and calling for his immediate release.

The Eritrean government has gained the reputation of being repressive against journalists. In September 2001, the government closed all private media outlets in the country and began arresting journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has named Eritrea one of the world's 10 Worst Places to be a Journalist. The Committee says 18 journalists, including Mr. Aklilu, are in government custody. Most are held in unknown locations.

A source at the U.S. Embassy in Eritrea told VOA the embassy is closely following the case.