Eritrean-born journalist Tewolde Tesfagabir says the brief seizure of the Information Ministry and state media in Asmara Monday was an effort by dissident soldiers to focus government attention on issues of concern to many Eritreans.
The release of political prisoners is one of the demands issued by the dissident soldiers. Tewolde, who works for the VOA’s Horn of Africa service, says civil society and the Eritrean government do not agree on who is considered a political prisoner.
“In a country where the constitution is not effectively implemented, political movements can be considered as paramount to treason,” he says. “In a democratically-elected government where the term of the president in limited by the constitution, it’s another issue.”
Freedom of Speech
Human rights and media watchdog groups have long documented what they see as the lack of press freedom and freedom of assembly in Eritrea. Tewolde concurs that private media is non-existent, but explains what surprised him during his recent trip to Eritrea.
“In Asmara cafes, I was amazed to hear people criticize the government. I also see people criticize the government in state media,” he says. “But again, I haven’t noticed a self-organized group of people or associations discussing politics.”
The Eritrean-born journalist says even where people appear to freely express their political views, they do so in the company of those they know well and feel comfortable with.
Eritrea became officially independent in 1993 and has had only one president, Issayas Afeworki. Based on his interviews with the long-time president, Tewolde sees the prospects for democratic elections close to nill.
“According to the president, 20 years is very short. And he seems to understand that it should take 100 years (to hold elections.) He cites as a new country, Eritrea is not ready for democracy,” says Tewolde.
And when elections do take place, Tewolde adds, “the type of democracy President Issayas wants to implement is different in its description and meaning from what we know here,” he says.