Freedom fight has base in Athens

Three men who play key role in crusade against repression in Eritrea, Africa, work from Athens


Freedom of expression is a concept that is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and is embedded in American culture and history. Many countries throughout the world have similar protections but a lot don’t. Quite the contrary.

In an effort to bring light to the extreme censorship and persecution that journalists face in their home country, exiled Eritrean writers founded the organization, or center, PEN Eritrea. Three of its members – Abraham Zere, Ghirmai Negash and Yonatan Tewelde – manage the center’s website and content from Athens, Ohio.

The center was approved by PEN International, a worldwide association of writers that “promotes literature and freedom of expression,” according to its website. PEN International has centers, such as PEN Eritrea, in more than 100 countries.

The center was established at the 80th PEN International Congress in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in October 2014, but the website didn’t begin operating until February 2015.

Many people around the world are arrested for practicing freedom of expression, particularly journalists. Some of the most censored countries in the world include China, Cuba and Iran.

According to the 2015 list of the “10 Most Censored Countries” provided by the Committee to Protect Journalists, North Korea holds second place, trumped by Eritrea.

Eritrea is a small African country on the coast of the Red Sea, bordered by Ethiopia to the south and Sudan to the west and north.

According to the CPJ report, “President Isaias Afwerki has succeeded in his campaign to crush independent journalism, creating a media climate so oppressive that even reporters for state-run news outlets live in constant fear of arrest.”

CPJ also reports that “Eritrea is Africa’s worst jailer of journalists,” imprisoning as many as 23 journalists in 2014 without trial or charges brought against them.

Just like PEN International, PEN Eritrea works to promote freedom of expression and literature. Zere, the executive director and chief editor of PEN Eritrea, said that because of Eritrea’s status as the most repressive country for journalists, the center is mainly working to promote awareness of the journalists who are left behind bars without any communication or updates about their wellbeing in the country.

In August, The Guardian published a piece written by Zere that profiled six journalists who have been imprisoned for 14 years, some of whom are now believed to be dead.

Negash, president of PEN Eritrea, explained that PEN Eritrea uses freedom of speech by “saying things on behalf of those who can’t.” He stresses to other writers that they must remain “vigilant of their own freedom” and to “avoid self-censorship.”

Negash is a professor of English and African literature in the Ohio University Department of English and associate director of OU’s African Studies Program. Tewelde is PEN Eritrea’s graphics editor and webmaster, a graduate communication and development student, and a graduate assistant at the Tropical Disease Institute of OU.

Prior to coming to Athens, Zere, Negash and Tewelde knew each other at the University of Asmara, which was officially closed by the Eritrean government in 2006. Negash helped found and formerly chaired the Department of Eritrean Languages and Literature at Asmara, and both Zere and Tewelde were journalism students who received their bachelors of arts in journalism and mass communication at the university and worked as journalists after graduating.

Negash came to OU in 2005 as a visiting professor. Zere came to Athens in 2012 to pursue a master’s degree in international studies at OU and graduated in 2014; Tewelde arrived this year.

The website currently has 10 frequent writers, but Zere also contacts other writers with requests to contribute to the site. Much of the content on PEN Eritrea is written in English, but various other articles, poems and stories appear in different languages, such as Tigrinya, one of the dominant languages in Eritrea.

As Athens serves as home and a workplace for these PEN Eritrea board and executive members, they find solace and comfort in the small city while working for the center.

Negash described Athens as a friendly place with a cosmopolitan feel that stems from its plentiful culture and the diverse backgrounds of the people who live here.

“It is a place where all of us feel at home while we are staying away from home,” Zere said, noting that Athens services a place of solace and refuge for him.

Tewelde shared similar sentiments about Athens.

“Athens is a hippie little town, and on the flip side has an academic and culturally vibrant atmosphere,” Tewelde said. “I believe it is an ideal place for PEN Eritrea as a sort of virtual headquarters.”