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Q & A: Eritrean journalist-in-exile reflects on censored country

May 11, 2012 |  5:00 am

AaronberhaneThis post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

The isolated and impoverished country of Eritrea is now the most censored country on the globe, according to new rankings from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Under President Isaias Afewerki, who has led Eritrea since it wrested its independence from Ethiopia nearly two decades ago, the heavily militarized East African nation has clamped down on dissent. Foreign reporters are shut out. All media are  controlled by the government.

It didn’t used to be that way. Eritrean journalist-in-exile Aaron Berhane published an independent newspaper in Eritrea before the government shut down private media in 2001, angered by criticism of the regime.

Now living in Canada, Berhane publishes a newspaper for the Eritrean community there, providing local news and relaying what information he can from his home country, which suffers from drought and hunger and the constant threat of forced labor imposed by its authoritarian government.

With journalists in the country unwilling or unable to speak out, Berhane talked to The Times about his brushes with censorship in his homeland before he went into hiding and escaped.

Before your paper in Eritrea was shut down, were you threatened for your reporting?

Threats and intimidation were part and parcel of our life. It was very common for me to be summoned to the police station once or twice a week to answer very trivial questions. “Why did you write this? Who was your source?”  Some of the generals called and told you, “Watch it. It is not time to talk about this now.” The intimidation was there all the time. But it was not as open at the beginning.

Once we published an open letter from 15 officials criticizing the president and calling for democratic reform. It was a kind of turning point. It changed the political environment of the country. I was summoned to the police station and interrogated. I was asked, “Who gave you that letter?” And I told them, “What’s the point? The name of those officials are listed at the bottom of the letter.” They said, “No, we want to know who gave you the letter.” They interrogated me for three or four hours just to get the answer, who actually gave me the letter? I didn’t give them any name.

After that the intimidation really increased. One day in September 2001 I wrote an editorial that said many things about the government. When I got home that night around 10 p.m., two security agents were waiting for me in front of my home, in the shadows.

I got out of my car and they came out and approached me. Their faces were covered. One of them put a gun on my chest and he told me, “We came to give you advice.” I asked him, “Who are you?” They said, “We are concerned Eritreans. If you keep criticizing the government, this is going to be your final byline.”

It was very scary. I could feel the tip of the gun on my ribs. I just waited and they told me, “Keep quiet.” And they left.

It was a very scary time, June to September. A week after the World Trade Center was attacked they  shut down all independent newspapers and arrested the senior officials who wrote the open letter. Two days later they came to arrest us.

But as soon as my paper was shut down, I never slept at my home. I was hiding myself. I wouldn’t be seen in any public places where I used to hang out. When they came to arrest me I was not at home. I managed to escape after hiding myself for more than three months -- to be exact 104 days.

It was like a prison. I was just staying in one room. I didn’t know what to do. There was no way I could escape because my picture was distributed in all checkpoints. My sources told me not even to try.

All my colleagues were arrested. Finally I managed to flee. Two of us, with the help of a guide, we tried to cross the border. At the border we were encountered by the Eritrean patrolling army. They opened fire. My colleague and the guide were captured. It was only me who managed to escape. As we speak there are 30 journalists in Eritrea in prison now, some from private media, some from government media.

How do you keep up with what's happening in Eritrea?

It is very difficult. The government deliberately restricts the use of Internet. To send one email it takes forever. People don’t really use the internet as they wish. You can chat a bit, but still it’s not easy. Sometimes you speak using different codes. You try to be creative. But it is always risky for someone who lives in Eritrea to give you some concrete information.

Eritrea is the worst country to be a journalist. There are no journalists now because the journalists who work for the government, they are like civil servants. They can’t operate as journalists. They have to write how they are told to write. One just fled from Eritrea to Ethiopia and he articulated how difficult it is to work as a journalist in Eritrea: "If you see black and they tell you this is red, you have to put it that way. If you see people are dying with hunger, you can’t write that. Just say they’re doing very well." The editor cuts all the things that could damage the image of the government. The government is focusing on keeping its image. But it doesn’t care about the life of the people or where this country is headed.

Do you see any possibilities for change?

I am an optimistic person. People are really fed up. They are controlled by this dictator and this regime, so they keep quiet. But the government Is struggling financially. The health of the president is getting weaker. The relationship that he has with the international community and its neighbors is at its lowest stage. We expect to see some results very soon.

Now that you’re publishing a newspaper in Canada, what do you think of the media here?

In Eritrea there is government media and it works for the government. it works to paint a good picture. It is a propaganda machine. And the private media in Eritrea were very dedicated to serving the people; they had very little resources but they were doing amazing work to expose wrongdoings.

In the Western world, there is a public media -- here it is CBC -- it is not controlled by the government but it is a public media. It serves the people. It is not dominated by advertising. It raises social issues, economic issues and it has educational information which is fantastic. The private or independent media is owned by corporations here. Journalists can write whatever they want, but they don’t seem to want something that could offend the corporations.

How about the coverage of Eritrea -- if there is coverage of Eritrea?

Thirty journalists are in prison in Eritrea and you hardly see coverage about what is going on in. Eritrea doesn’t have any economic link with Canada and its population is small, so maybe they assume readers are not interested. But it’s a wrong assumption. People want to know what is going on in the world. You really want the media to speak more about what is going on -- not just once or twice a year.

[For the Record, 7:47 a.m. May 11: A previous version of this post misstated the name of Isaias Afewerki.]

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In Turkey, jailed journalists a sign of declining press freedom

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Aaron Berhane.

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