The price of being a journalist in Eritrea

Being a journalist in Eritrea means risking your life every day. Here, the pseudonym Mussie Hadgu writes about what made him become a journalist. “The crimes I witnessed shook me to the core, and I felt I had to expose these crimes, come what may.”

April 8 2015 Text: Mussie Hadgu

Declaring its secession from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritreans braced for the dictatorship of the former rebel leader, President Isaias Afwerki, which has now proved to be the most repressive regime in the world. The country is ruled by a single party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), that violates every fundamental right of its citizens, practically turning the country into an open prison camp. In Eritrea, political parties, national elections, and freedoms of movement, assembly, worship, association and expression are all banned. The population is subjected to slavery under the pretext of the national service. The country is ruled without a constitution and the independence and impartiality of the judiciary has been compromised. Eritrea has become a pariah state in the region providing financial, technical and military support and protection to terrorist groups such as Alshabab and other rebel groups in the region. However, this article will limit its scope to the situation of freedom of expression and access to information in the country.

The right to freedom of expression and access to information has been criminalized in Eritrea. During the brief period between 1996 and 2001, private print media had operated freely in the country and provided an alternative source of information to the public. Most of the writers, editors and operators of these media outlets were young journalists who could never imagine a day when their work would be the cause of their torture, imprisonment, disappearance and even death. They were innocent people with tremendous energy, dedication, commitment, great ambitions and vision. They had no sense of what was going to happen to them. Their conscience and instinct were telling them that they were doing noble work which benefited the public and country. They believed their works contributed to public awareness, enlightenment and education, good governance and accountability, transparency, democracy, peace, and justice. For their noble works, they never expected to be punished but to be rewarded. However, in September 2011 and the following months a tragedy befell these journalists. 10 journalists and 11 high profile government officials were arrested by the Eritrean security forces never to be seen again. Some journalists managed to go into hiding and/or escape the country. The journalists who were arrested were:

1.     Yusuf Mohamed Ali

2.     Seyoum Tsehaye

3.     Dawit Isaak

4.     Temesgen Gebreyesus

5.     Mattewos Habteab

6.     Dawit Habtemichael

7.     Medhanie Haile

8.     Fessehaye Yohannes

9.     Said Abdulkadir

10.  Amanuel Asrat

Since their arrest, these journalists have been held incommunicado without charges. According to information obtained from Eyob Bahta Habtemariam, a former prison guard who escaped to a neighboring country in 2010, the journalists are being held in a hot, harsh, remote location, called Eraero. So far, already 8 journalists are reported to have died. It is not yet known where their bodies have been buried. Their families have not yet been informed of their deaths.

Since 2001, the government’s attack on freedom of expression and access to information have worsened. People are being monitored and spied on by government agents, and subsequently harassed, imprisoned and tortured for their critical expression and opinion of the government. The wave of arrests of journalists continued to include journalists working for the state media. Though some have been released, 58 journalists from the state media and the ministry of Education alone have been detained.

My own experience in journalism
In 2007, I began involving myself in journalistic works and human rights activism. Being aware of the consequences of my actions, I chose to publish my works in pseudonym while performing my human rights services clandestinely. My engagement in journalism came not by design and purpose but by accident. I was arrested, detained and tortured three times in Eritrea, in 2001, 2002 and 2007, and in all cases escaped from the prisons. Arrests, detentions, tortures and killings are the normal daily life in Eritrea, and my case was no different. During my stays in detention I was subjected to torture, but worse some people were killed and others maimed right in front of my eyes. The crimes I witnessed shook me to the core, and I felt I had to expose these crimes, come what may. Thus, I began writing and reporting my eye witness accounts from inside Eritrea. My articles were posted in the diaspora websites such as www.asmarino.com and www.hrc-eritrea.org. This was extremely risky, given I used public internet cafes to write and send my reports, although later Elsa Chyrum, a renowned human rights defender based in the UK, sent me a computer when she became aware of those risks. The other challenge was the very limited internet service access in Eritrea, and I had to subscribe for membership at the British Council for a stable connection. I knew that what I was doing could cost me my life, but I had to take risks in order to fight for justice. Thus, 2007 marked a milestone in my life where I went from a humanitarian and development worker to a journalist.

Until the end of 2009, I continued to work under highly risky conditions. Given the fact the government had banned private press and access to information, my security and safety was at stake. In January 2010, when conditions became too unbearable, I fled the country, leaving behind my pregnant wife and two children. The journey was life-threatening and I could have been killed, detained, or tortured for several years by the Eritrean border guards, but good luck saved me. The situation was particularly difficult for my family, especially for my oldest 3-year old son, who suffered greatly, and I suffered with him. They lived in constant fear for their own safety and security, fearing a government that held them hostage by preventing them from leaving the country. The family of three which I left behind became four with the birth of my third child in September 2010.

The escape of my family
After working tirelessly and exploring the least risky ways of escaping, my family made all the necessary psychological preparation. The days before the departure were difficult and full of stress and anxiety. We were well aware of the enormous risks of escape, luckily my wife’s strategy of misleading the security forces in order to reach the Sudanese border worked well. My family travelled 480 km from Asmara to the border village of Omhajer on the 17th of November 2012, without being spotted by the Eritrean security forces, where they hid for eight days.

Although it was initially agreed the greater portion of the journey across the border would be by vehicle, the guides made last-minute changes to the plan, claiming tighter security restrictions. It was decided the entire trip would be done on foot, beginning at 10:00 pm, using the cover of darkness. That variation in the arrangement was unexpected for my wife, who had to carry our 2-year old child and some food, while the two guides carried our 6 and 4-year old children and drinking water. Walking the whole night, they reached their destination of the Sudanese village of Hamdait at 8:00 am. This journey typically takes no longer than 5 hours but was delayed due to tighter border controls and stepped-up security at military guarded camps. The journey took the character of military intelligence that involved diligent and skillful surveillance before moving forward. Though my wife had demonstrated tremendous courage, stamina and endurance to complete the journey successfully, she was exhausted and sustained muscle strains and bruises. My wife and I had maintained constant communication during the journey, facilitated by a Sudanese mobile phone she carried with her. However, on the night of the perilous border crossing, communication was lost and that night was very stressful and never-ending for me. When it was re-established at 8:30 AM the next morning, I was so happy and excited. Regardless of what she had endured, crossing safely into Sudan in itself was a great relief.

Nevertheless, we were aware of the difficulties and dangers ahead of us. Given the precarious security situation at the border, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and Commission for Refugees (COR) had recently established a reception station at Hamdait, where my family sought shelter. Prior to this, there were various reports of escapees being interrogated, tortured, raped, looted or even sold to human traffickers and held for ransom by the Sudanese security forces. From this reception centre to the final destination itself was a long and complex process which took 6 months to be realized. My family had to move to the Shegarab refugee camp, from where they were smuggled to Khartoum in another dangerous journey. They stayed in Khartoum for 5 months because they did not possess passports to travel out of Sudan. When all hopes of travelling abroad legally failed, we had to find the illegal means for them to join me. Finally, we reunited on the 25th of May 2013, a great moment for all of us. When we met, although my oldest son had some vague memories of me, my other two children couldn’t recognize me to call me dad.