An international media group says Eritrea is jailing more journalists than any other nation in Africa.  As Nick Wadhams reports from our East Africa bureau in Nairobi, the harsh conditions have forced many journalists in the secretive Horn of Africa nation to try to flee.

The Vienna-based International Press Institute sent a letter to the World Bank, the European Union, and the U.S. government urging the international community to consider restricting aid to Eritrea unless its rights record improves.
In the letter, IPI Director Johann Fritz expressed concern about reports suggesting that four Eritrean journalists may have recently died in prison.  He said he believes the international community is not doing enough to pressure President Isias Afewerki's government to change.

Eritrea reportedly launched a new crackdown on journalists in November, after several managed to flee Eritrea.  Nine reporters were arrested and reportedly tortured until they divulged the passwords to their e-mail accounts.

IPI Deputy director David Dadge says there are reports that at least 20 journalists are jailed in Eritrea.  In June, a journalist with a state-owned Eritrean television service, Paulos Kidane, died while trying to flee Eritrea on foot for Sudan.

"For the last seven years, the Eritrean government has taken a very jaundiced view of the independent press and sought really to silence them," Dadge said. "In 2001, it was because there were security concerns the government said, but actually it was forthcoming elections, I think, that made them scared that the independent media would criticize them during that critical period.  The most recent ones, journalists have just been trying to escape the country.  The independent media are more interested in trying to leave than they are in trying to practice their profession these days."

In a 2006 report, the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said Eritrea was the third-worst violator of press freedoms in the world.  Only Turkmenistan and Korea ranked worse.  The country shut down the independent press in 2001. 

In 2003, Eritrea arrested a local reporter for Voice of America, Aklilu Solomon, who was detained for 18 months and then placed under house arrest.  He later fled the country.

An Eritrean government spokesman, Yemane Gebremeskel, dismissed the criticism of Eritrea's record.  In an interview on a government Website, he said Eritrea has no need for a clean bill of health from groups such as IPI and Reporters Without Borders, which he said have dubious credibility.

The International Press Institute is asking international donors to make it clear to Eritrea that its rights record is poor and that aid to the country should be linked to human-rights improvements.  Dadge suggests that Eritrea will only be encouraged to violate its people's rights as long as aid levels continue unchanged.