(First published in Agenda for International Development Oct. 23, 2015)
Eritrea has increasingly being known as a place of repression and tragedies in the global media, especially after the Lampadusa shipwreck disaster in October 2013. Some have dubbed the country “Africa’s North Korea” for its worst human rights record among nations, while Eritrean local refer to it as a place “where it is only safe to talk about football.”
It is the only African country without a constitution and an independent press, after all private newspapers have been banned in 2001. The editors and a group of political reformers called G15 were also arrested at the same time, and remain in prison until today. And some have died in the prison cells. It is the most censored country in the world and third highest jailor of journalists after China and Iran. Eritrea is also a country where the ruling party rations the basic food commodities and where construction of new houses is outlawed, although proper housing infrastructure is badly needed especially in the main cities. Almost the entire adult population of the country is enlisted in the army in one way or another, and all citizens serve in an indefinite military conscription. Eritrea closed its main national university, The University of Asmara, in 2006, and the recently established regional colleges are underequipped. Gradually, the effect of these accumulated factors have resulted in making Eritrea the mother country of more than 357 thousandrefugees and 10,000 prisoners of conscience.
After the Eritrean government issued a free press law in 1996, a vibrant independent media had began to flourish from 1997 until the final ban in September 2001. The rift between the private newspapers and the government widened after 15 members of the Eritrean assembly (known as G-15) demanded political reform and the implementation of the ratified constitution. Being ousted from their respective positions, most of the reformists were using the private newspapers as platforms to express their demands.Consequently, seven private newspapers were banned on September 18, 2001 and eleven opposition members were arrested in the same period. Neither members of the reformist group nor the 12 journalists arrested were officially charged.
The Eritrean mediascape is characterized by an extremely centralized information-system, which is fed by the government. Not to mention the tedious censorship routines imposed by the Ministry of Information to the whole body of artistic production in the country, even the state journalists usually face harassment and arbitrary arrests. Moreover, the ranks of the ministry is filled with threshold guardians who control the information flow. At some point the minister of information himself was approving every news to be published or broadcasted by the national media. Such a fragile state also enables the control of arts by the state, as it happened, for example, during the tenure of Minister Ali Abdu, who later deserted the regime in 2012.
PEN Eritrea was formed against this awful backdrop. According to its charter, PEN Eritrea was formed: “To provide neutral, verified and credible information and the advocacy of freedom of expression. The organization is run by a team of multi-skilled professionals who strive to promote freedom of expression, peace and national reconciliation, and human rights values in Eritrea.”
Currently members and organizers of PEN Eritrea are writers and journalist in exile. A branch of PEN International, PEN Eritrea works within the frameworks of established international norms and ethics. While doing so, as the current president of the Center,Ghirmai Negash, puts it: “The association’s core mission is to give voice to the detained and threatened Eritrean journalists and artists, and make their plight be heard by the international community of writers and human rights advocates.”
Since its official kick off in February 2015, PEN Eritrea has accomplished some tangible tasks, and has reached out to wide audiences. In August 2015, in collaboration with The Guardian, it profiled six journalists languishing incommunicado for the last 14 years. On the International Translation Day, it was able in collaboration with PEN International, to translate Amanuel Asrat’s poem (one of the journalists and poets in custody) into 12 languages. Amanuel Asrat was selected to hold one of the empty chairs at the 81st PEN International congress held in Quebec, Canada, in October 2015. He is also among the finalists of the Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression to be announced in January 2016.
PEN Eritrea continues to work through all possible and peaceful means to advocate for freedom of expression and the release of all imprisoned journalists and writers in Eritrea. In order to reach a wider audience, the Center also publishes information and articles on its website. On different occasions, it also does collaborative works with other centers and independent media like radio broadcast.