Eritrea may be world’s most repressive nation
By JOEL BRINKLEY
Tribune Media Services
It might seem a daunting challenge to determine which of the world’s repressive nations offers the least-free news media — Iran, North Korea, Belarus.
But you may be surprised by the unanimity among organizations that study such things, like Reporters Without Borders, a French group. The consensus choice is Eritrea.
Eritrea, a desperately poor desert state about the size of Pennsylvania, lives in an ugly neighborhood on the Horn of Africa, between Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. Conditions in Eritrea are so bad that an estimated 25 percent of the population has fled in the last 20 years. The government classifies emigrants as “traitors,” and border guards are ordered to shoot them.
A secret slogan among Eritrea’s youth: “Leave to live.”
In fact, Eritrea may be the most repressive nation on earth. Many thousands of imprisoned journalists, former government officials, religious leaders and others are held indefinitely without charge in 314 detention centers — some with their hands and feet shackled, others tied to a cross or hung upside down, Human Rights Watch reported.
Among underground prisons, one is 229 feet below sea level, where temperatures are reported to reach 140 degrees. Dehydration and heat-stroke deaths are common. “Eritrea’s government is turning the state into a giant prison,” Human Rights Watch said.
Why don’t you know about this? In 2001, a few days after the 9/11 attacks, President Isaias Afewerki shut down all the nation’s independent media and sent scores of journalists to those secret underground jails.
There are only a handful of state-owned newspapers, TV and radio stations. The last 11 years there has been no way to know what’s happening. NGOs are forbidden to open offices, and foreign correspondents are banned.
For the last decade the Committee to Protect Journalists, African Press Organization and International Federation of Journalists have begged Western nations to “end the apathy of the international community,” as one of them put it. Still today, no one knows; no one cares.
The organizations recognize that the ill-treatment of the media is just the most public symptom of a larger problem — a national leader, like so many others, whose only aspiration is to cling to power no matter how barbaric he needs to be. But most other dictators, like North Korea’s Kim family, are largely passive, unresponsive to suffering — unless directly threatened. Not Afewerki.
As one Eritrean who fled told the BBC: “I realize there are problems everywhere, but Eritrea is unique. It’s like the Middle Ages. How can we live like this?”
Eritrea used to be an Italian colony. Later, Ethiopia annexed it. But after a 30-year civil war, the country won independence in 1991. Afewerki has been the nation’s leader ever since and remarked last year that he won’t hold elections “for three or four decades.” The State Department’s human rights report said his government continues “the practice of summary executions and shooting individuals on sight near mining camps and border regions."
Nonetheless, the world paid no attention. None at all, until finally Eritrea made a fateful error. In 2010, Afewerki began providing arms and supplies to the Al Shabab Islamist militants in Somalia, hoping they would attack their shared enemy, Ethiopia.
Finally the world did take notice. The United Nations Security Council voted without a dissenting voice to order an arms embargo and take other punitive measures intended to end that assistance for Al Shabab.
The European Union followed suit, while at the same time continuing to provide so-called developmental aid: $160 million over five years. A few months ago, Afewerki told Europe: Forget it. We don’t want your money anymore. Earlier, he told the United States the same thing. Washington had provided $65 million in aid each year.
As Afewerki put it: “We don’t want to be pushed around. Leave us alone.”
And the world seems all too happy to comply.
Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University.
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