UNESCO is celebrating World Press Freedom Day on 2nd and 3rd May 2019 –celebrations to be held at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. So, it is quite appropriate that we examine closely democracy and media freedom in a country not far from Ethiopia, its close neighbour, Eritrea. The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day is “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation.” This topic could not be more relevant or apposite for the urgent concerns of the people of Eritrea.
Eritrea’s Press Freedom – A World Ranking:
According to Reporters Without Borders, in their Press Freedom Index for 2019, Eritrea is ranked 178th out of 180 countries. How did Eritrea come to be one of the three worst countries in the world for denying press freedom?
Free Media Shut-Down:
In September 2001, the Government closed all the independent media and arrested 10 journalists and editors associated with it, without bothering to secure the necessary authorisation of a court order. Since then, all these journalists have been detained incommunicado, and it is reported that some have died in detention. That action was taken by the executive, with no reference to the judicial system, and hence was entirely outside the rule of law. What it achieved in one stroke was the silencing of freedom of speech and the removal of any interlocutor to challenge the executive government.
No Independent National Media in Eritrea.
Today there is simply no independent national media in Eritrea. The only media outlet operating in the country (print, television, radio) is the Government Media, under the umbrella of the Ministry of Information, presently presided over by Mr. Yemane Gebremeskel, the Minister of Information. His appointment to this post has been entirely negative and destructive for freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and any hope of the existence of independent journalism. He has never bothered to explain the imprisonment of all independent journalists in 2001, only referring vaguely to their being involved with groups “planning regime change.”
The Official Media:
The combination of arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, the closure of the independent media, and the undermining of the Judiciary, means that Eritreans have simply no avenues for freedom of speech or outlets for the expression of individual opinion. The Eritrean Government uses the official controlled media to communicate messages to the population, just as if it were a political party news service; the official media of Eritrea has become nothing more than a “Propaganda Office.”
The few select foreign journalists considered favourable to the Government in Eritrea, who have been permitted to enter the country are highly monitored and only allowed to see places and speak to individuals acceptable to the Government and its security service. As a result, many naive foreign visitors are deceived into believing Eritrea to be a perfectly fair and well-administered nation, and leave the country with this erroneous perception.
A Closed, Tightly-Controlled Nation:
But the actual truth is very different. Most foreign journalists are banned from entry into Eritrea, and therefore unable to report the massive deprivations, tortures and torments endured by the Eritrean population. Eritrea is a tightly closed nation much the same as North Korea and is appropriately dubbed the North Korea of Africa. Just like North Korea, Eritreans are indoctrinated, intimidated, coerced, and threatened with all sorts of penalties and punishments if they take so much as one step “out of line”, and face what amounts to a lingering death sentence if they do not express their unflinching loyalty to the ruling party. Many have permanently “disappeared” and been extra-judicially executed for the mere expression of minor dissent, or even simply because they are suspected of being anti-government. In Eritrea, it is tantamount to a death sentence simply to express candid opinions that criticize the country’s self-appointed leaders. Such is the rigid implacable control of all expression of opinion.
The Missing Cornerstones of Democracy
The fundamental flaw in present-day Eritrea is the absence of a fully functioning constitution which balances the powers of the executive governmental power with a truly representative legislative body and a judicial system separate from the executive. Only such a balance can guarantee true democracy.
Freedom of expression within an independent media is a vital cornerstone of such a democracy. The other vital cornerstones are a freely and fairly-elected representative parliament and an independent judiciary. All three of these vital elements require a constitution which upholds and guarantees them. None of these exist in Eritrea today.
There is no working Constitution in Eritrea. In May 1997, a Constitution was ratified by the then National Assembly, but it has not been implemented. In May 2014, the President of Eritrea announced that the government would start the process of drafting a new Constitution. But this promise has never been fulfilled. Without such a constitution, freedom of expression and a free media cannot be protected.
There is no parliament in Eritrea. The National Assembly (the Legislative Body) has not functioned since 2003. Without such a parliament with its legislative power, the executive governs unchecked. In Eritrea, the executive government is enacting laws and often ignoring previous laws, and laws may be suspended by directive of the executive. A major tactic of the government is to over-rule the judiciary and the power of the courts. It has done this by creating “Special Courts”, set up in 1996. Cases handled by the “Special Courts” are outside the normal judicial process, subject only to the dictats of the central government.
When Freedom of Expression is itself Imprisoned:
With this subversion of the rule of law, a free media cannot be protected, and any journalist, speaker or writer critical of government is subject to unchecked, unlimited detention. What the outside world does not see is what happens to critics of the government detained in numerous detention centres (over 350), some underground, where many Eritreans are kept in total darkness for years, (and in the process, lose their eyesight). The Eritrean government has built more prisons than schools since independence. In this prison “gulag”, numerous innocent Eritreans decay for years in appalling and inhuman conditions, punished for crimes with which they were never charged, never knowing the reasons for their incarceration. This too is the fate of many journalists and free thinkers. It is indeed the end of all free expression, and the explanation why there can be no independent media in Eritrea. Freedom of Expression has itself been imprisoned.
Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)