Media watchdog calls for release of detained journalists

The global media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders has called on Eritrean President Isayas Aferwerki to release journalists and political detainees who it said are being held in Eritrean jails.

In a statement issued on Monday to mark Eritrea's independence day, the group told the president that "to turn this day into a genuine celebration he would need to release senior journalists from the newspapers Tsigenay, Maqaleh, Keste Debena, Zemen, Admas and all the other political detainees."

Eritrean authorities have denied allegations that they hold political dissidents.

Yemane Gebremeskel, spokesman and director of the Eritrean president’s office, told IRIN in an interview on 6 May: "We don’t have political dissidents. No one is jailed because he has a different opinion."

According to Reporters Without Borders, 13 Eritrean reporters have been in jail since 2001. Another 15 highly placed officials, it added, who were reported by the media to have called for "democratisation" in May 2001, were also in jail, while privately owned media was "suspended".

"In April 2002, after staging a hunger strike in protest at their imprisonment, 10 detained journalists were moved to secret places of detention," the media watchdog added. "Since then, nothing is known about their plight. Their families have not been allowed to visit them."

It quoted Eritrean authorities as saying in 2004 that a parliamentary commission examining the issue of allowing privately owned media to operate again was still preparing its report.

In September 2004, 10 human-rights organisations urged the Eritrean government to free detained reporters. A statement issued by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said some of those detained had been held for over three years without being formally charged.

The 10 organisations included the CPJ, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, West African Journalists Association, South Africa's Freedom of Expression Institute, Journaliste en Danger, the Media Institute of Kenya, African Free Media Foundation and the Media Foundation for West Africa.

In an earlier interview in April 2004, Yemane had told IRIN: "The problem with the existing papers was that they were few, most of the journalists were not experienced. They could have been easily manipulated, easily infiltrated, especially if there is money involved.

"If you tell me you are going to be a journalist, there are standards, there are ethics. In the previous press law, that was not there, so anybody who wanted to be a journalist could be a journalist. But then you also pay the price, because sometimes things get distorted."