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Fleeing editor describes crackdown in Eritrea

While the world was riveted by global terrorism, President Isaias Afewerki of the small east African country of Eritrea grasped for new power in his own country. He was once a freedom fighter, the George Washington of his country. But recently some ministers in his own government were describing him as “autocratic” and advocating his removal. So he arrested them. Then he shut down the independent newspapers and arrested at least eight journalists.

“Almost the entire independent press is being wiped out in front of the whole world,” fugitive editor Milkias Mihretab wrote me in an e-mail last week. Milkias and most of the journalists arrested had been my students during the three trips I took to Africa to teach the people who had created the newly independent newspapers.

Milkias, editor of the twice-weekly paper Keste Debena, was a star student and a fan of America. He had photographs of his heroes, Colin Powell and Ronald Reagan, on his office wall. When the roundup came on Sept. 18, ever-crafty Milkias and a reporter avoided arrest by fleeing north across the backcountry to Sudan. “We are keeping [a] low profile as the Eritrean government agents are here too,” he wrote.

While Milkias dodges detection, Yousef Mohamed Ali, a longtime freedom fighter with a sad face and a determined spirit, is in detention again. He was just released in April after months in a military camp.

Using an Internet e-mail account from a computer in Khartoum, Milkias delivered a roll call of detainees from our seminar. “The first one to be arrested was assistant editor of Keste Debena Medhannie Haile,” Milkias wrote on Sept. 24, “and then Dawit [Habtemichael] from Mekaleh, Amanuel Asrat from Zemen, Yousef from Tsigenay, Temesgen from Keste Debena.”

Temesgen. At the end of the seminar last October he had handed me his picture “just in case.”

News agencies also reported the arrests of the energetic editor of Mekaleh, Mattewos Habteab, and tall, thoughtful Aron Berhane, editor of the most pro-government independent paper, Setit.

“The situation is grim, and unless the international community takes action, the life of the journalists in Eritrea is in extreme danger,” Milkias added. “The government in Asmara is doing such an ugly act because it thinks the world’s attention is somewhere [else].”

The roundup was foreshadowed a year ago. Soldiers showed up at newspaper offices and took away seven journalists, supposedly on suspicion of draft dodging. Most were released after a few days, but Milkias and Yousef were in custody for months.

On my first visit, in October 1999, the mood was very different. The journalists were novices. Patriotism among them was high. They were eager to form a press association to organize further training sessions. But the government denied the necessary permissions.

By my second visit a year ago, the journalists were more skeptical about the failure of the government to introduce democracy. They were still something of a ragtag band and retained the mild manner endemic to their culture, but they were no longer naive. They discussed continuing to meet informally.

The next morning, the first roundup happened.

There has never been much visible dissent in Eritrea. People were loyal to President Isaias, who had led the guerrilla fighting for 30 years until independence from Ethiopia was finally achieved in 1993. Unease has grown visibly in the past two years, however, and Isaias has doggedly discouraged it. Dissent was pushed underground, where it festered and produced clandestine opposition.

Like so many in power, Isaias equated the nation’s interests with his own. The people who were arrested for challenging him are being accused of treason. The latest arrests of journalists were for violations of the press code, presidential spokesman Yemane Ghebremeskel told Agence-France Press, without specifying the violations. The closing of the papers was done to preserve “national unity.” The newspapers’ licenses, he added, “will be renewed when authorities have looked into their position.”

So, once again, an obscure country that once held the promise of democracy has instead chosen the course of putting down dissent. The oppression has brought escalating resistance, which produces escalated oppression. It is an old story. It is easy to rationalize the muzzling of dissent in the name of “unity.” And the world seems uninterested.

Neil Skene is senior vice president for editorial and new media at Creative Loafing Inc., the parent company of this newspaper. His teaching visits to Eritrea were organized by the U.S. State Department. Letters of support for the journalists may be sent to, and will be forwarded to the Committee to Protect Journalists and other organizations.??

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