Today, on World Press Freedom Day, the director of PEN Eritrea in Exile shares his experience of life as a journalist in Eritrea, the country ranked worst in the world (180th) for press freedom in a report by Reporters without Borders.
In Kafka’s classic psychological novel The Trial, unidentified authorities suddenly show up one morning and inform Joseph K. that he’s under arrest. Mr. K. proclaims his innocence and tells a lengthy story in his own defence. Unfortunately, in this repressive world, the very fact of an arrest renders one guilty. A seemingly never-ending, nonsensical court case follows. Throughout, K. is never officially charged or even aware of the charges against him. K.’s sense of self and well-being is systematically destroyed by the incessant harassment and the torment of constantly being watched by anonymous authorities.
In the modern Eritrean media-scape, one faces similar hazards, including constant fear and uncertainty. Journalists carry the gut-churning knowledge that they could be found guilty merely by association and/or friendship, facing severe punishment without a trial.
The Eritrean government’s infamous political crackdown of 2001 resulted in the banning of seven private newspapers and the detention of 12 journalists for 15 years and counting without trial. While that crackdown targeted private newspapers, even state journalists live under constant fear in Eritrea. In late 2006, state security officers suddenly showed up at the Eritrean Ministry of Information, ushering several journalists into a police van. In the days that followed, state security officers regularly showed up at the Ministry, either waiting at the front gate or loitering around the Ministry’s coffee-shop, and arrested more than 10 state journalists seemingly at random. Journalists continued showing up for work with the terrifying knowledge that they might not be returning home at the end of the day.
As is typical of the repressive Eritrean regime, the detained state journalists were released without charges, some after a few weeks and others after more than a month in custody. They faced seemingly pointless interrogations and were ordered to provide their email passwords. This pattern of apparently random harassment and arrests occurs frequently in the Ministry of Information. Committing a harmless error or irritating then-Information Minister Ali Abdu was enough to put journalists in prison. Ali Abdu, at one time a brutally efficient propaganda minister, is now an asylum seeker in Australia.
On 22 February 2009, military security stormed the educational station Radio Bana and arrested more than 40 journalists and staff members. The station was banned and young leading poets from different ministries, most of them my close friends, were detained. No one knew why the radio station was raided, or why the journalists and poets were arrested and charged.
I distinctly remember the torment I suffered during this time. I was expecting to be arrested at any time. I didn’t feel as if I could visit my friends in prison without facing arrest myself. From this point on, I knew that I could never feel safe until I left the country.
In Kafka’s The Trial, when Mr. K. is arrested for unspecified charges, the authorities are not required to explain anything. Yet, the victims are perversely required “to examine their whole lives, their entire past, down to the smallest details,” in order to invent their own crimes. This is exactly what happens in Eritrea. After the radio station was banned and the journalists and poets arrested, they had to examine the entirety of their lives in order to make sense of their own arrests. The Eritrean government released most of the Radio Bana journalists after four years and the rest, six more, after six years. Upon preparing for release and asking for bond, one of the detainees learned he had been imprisoned for four years in place of another person by the same first name. During the four years of solitary confinement, this unfortunate individual repeatedly examined his past and ended up confessing to crimes he had never committed. Such random errors are common.
After most of my close friends were arrested, I vividly remember the profound feeling of guilt I felt for being left behind; for, in effect, abandoning them. As if I were complicit in their arrests, I even avoided meeting with their families.
The institutional abuse against journalists in Eritrea extends to slander and character assassination in the state media. In April 2009, after I wrote an article in the party’s magazine, then-Minister of Information Ali Abdu (using a pen-name) wrote the following about me in the national newspaper:
Abate This Before It’s Too Late!
Once again, some irresponsible and dangerous piece authored by an individual calling himself Abraham Tesfalul [Zere] has been published in the Hidri Magazine. Underlining that the disastrous experience of the ‘private press’ era has unleashed itself upon us as a result of such presumptive individuals being entrusted with a pen and a paper and through the work of such hypocrites who assume that they are contributing if they belittle the works of others. Someone should see to it soon that it is abated.
(Translated from the Tigrinya, published in the national newspaper, Haddas Ertra, April 21, 2009)
My article did not contain anything to merit such slander from Ali Abdu. (Anything published in the ruling party’s organ, by definition, is predictable and ultimately harmless.) Nor was I some dangerous figure. This was just a blatant attempt to silence any slight difference of opinion.
Like me, many others were targeted by Ali Abdu and his surrogates. In Eritrea as in Kafka’s novel, to be a journalist is to be terrorized, suspended in limbo and psychological torture.