Members of the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders have been protesting the detention of a number of journalists by the Eritrean government. It was just over a year ago that the government began arresting them and shut down the private media. To mark the anniversary, Reporters Without Borders demonstrated at the Eritrean Embassy in Paris. The organization is calling on the international community to pressure the government to lift the ban.
Eritrea is the only African country with no privately owned media. To protest that situation, twenty members of Reporters Without Borders recently occupied the Eritrean Embassy in Paris for two hours before the police expelled them. They say the Eritrean government’s has detained 18 journalists since September 2001. Jeff Guillard, head of the Africa Desk of Reporters Without Borders, says the government has not responded. "No, we didn’t get any response from the Eritrean authorities. For instance, we asked many, many times for visas, to go into Eritrea and visit the journalists detained — and we never get an answer from them — never get a visa".
Mr. Guillard says Reporter Without Borders is concerned about the condition of the jailed journalists. He says they have not been able to communicate with anyone since they were arrested. "The eighteen journalists are still detained for one year now and we are very worried about their condition of detention. We don’t know about them for many months, so we don’t know where they are detained, and we don’t know of their health. We are very concerned about their cases because even their families are not allowed to visit them in prison".
The organization is appealing to the Eritrean authorities, notably President Issais Afeworki, to allow privately owned media to operate again.
Mr. Guillard says the government is also holding some members of the opposition. He says their detention is an example of the oppression and loss of human rights in the country. "They have no freedom of expression at all. It is a very oppressive country in all human rights, not only press freedom".
The U-S ambassador to Eritrea, Girma Asmerom, acknowledges that journalists have been detained. But he says the number is lower than 18, and those jailed have been charged. He says the charges are two-fold. "One is a national security. So the second one is they have violated the press law. There are 124 cases where they have literally violated case by case, paragraph by paragraph, the articles in the first court which adopted the law of the land—which has been in place since 1996. So there are two dimensions to their charge".
The Eritrean Ambassador also disputes the claim by Reporters Without Border that the journalists are not allowed to have contact with their families. "That is not true. They have had contact with their families. Their families visit them. There are certain issues which they have to handle because it’s a national security issue. But, people try to sensationalize stories".
Ambassador Girma says the government is still compiling its cases against the journalists so their court dates have not yet been set. "They are working on it and definitely once they finish I can assure you definitely, those who are not criminals or culprits will be released and those who are criminals will be tried in an open and transparent way".
Ambassador Girma adds that Eritrea has not banned privately owned media, but has revoked their licenses because they violated press laws. The Eritrean government has also come under criticism from Amnesty International, which says it is illegally holding dozens of political prisoners, as well as journalists.
Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders is urging the United Nations and the European Union to join in the effort to obtain the release of the journalists and any other members of the opposition who may be in detention.