Eritrea: UN rights expert urges end to crippling media restrictions

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki

As the world marks Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Sheila B Keetharuth, has called on the Government to end its crippling restrictions on freedom of the press.

“Journalists remain at risk of arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and enforced disappearance in efforts to intimidate and control them, and these human rights violations happen with total disregard for the fundamental right to freedom of expression and information, as well as individual rights,” said Ms. Keetharuth.

“Freedom of expression is an inalienable right and includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, either orally, in writing, in the form of art, or through other forms of communication, including across frontiers,” she added.

“The actions of journalists are closely watched in Eritrea as a means of domination and instilling fear in an oppressive context where the media is fully state-owned. Arbitrary arrests and imprisonment are used to muzzle journalists and provoke a situation of self-censorship. No critical analysis or comment on government policies or actions are permitted,” the expert stressed.

According to public reports, the detention of two journalists in April 2018 following the funeral of the elder Haji Musa Mohamed Nur were recent examples of the continuing hostile environment in which journalists work in Eritrea, said Ms. Keetharuth. According to the reports, both journalists have now been released, but their arbitrary arrest was deplorable, she added.

The Special Rapporteur has documented more than 90 arrests of journalists in Eritrea since 1997. Although this figure is not exhaustive, she says it illustrates the precarious situation of journalists in the country.

Among those detained have been award-winning journalists, such as Dawit Isaak, who was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2017 in recognition of his courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression. Dawit Isaak and other journalists arrested during a 2001 crackdown on the free press in Eritrea are still held incommunicado in an undisclosed location without charge, with no access to legal representatives and/or family, and with no indication that they will ever be tried in a court of law. Their state of physical and mental health is an ongoing concern.

“A free press is critical to the rule of law, ensuring that the population of the country is well-informed to foster participation and decision-making based on knowledge. An atmosphere in which freedom of speech and the press exist and where journalists can exercise their profession without fear brings transparency, which is much needed to hold those in power to account, thus promoting justice,” said the UN expert.

“The restrictions imposed on a free press by the Government of Eritrea are not proportional, not necessary for the interests of national security, public order or even national unity and constitute a violation of the right to seek, receive and impart information,” the Special Rapporteur emphasised.