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REGIONS:

13 JOURNALISTS STILL IN JAIL ON FIVE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF CRACKDOWN

Five years after Eritrean authorities launched a massive crackdown on independent journalists and media outlets, 13 journalists continue to be held in secret jails, say the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF).

The organisations have called for the release of the journalists, all of whom have been denied access to families, lawyers and other visitors. Basic information about them has become nearly impossible to obtain from official sources. Eritrean authorities have also tightened restrictions on all foreigners seeking to travel inside the country, requiring them to obtain permits as of June 2006.

Eritrea is the fourth leading jailer of journalists in the world after China, Cuba and Ethiopia, says CPJ. Most of the 13 journalists were swept up in a crackdown against opposition leaders and the independent press as part of a drive to suppress political dissent ahead of scheduled elections, which the government subsequently canceled without explanation. Another two journalists who were initially arrested have since been forced into military service.

Since the September 2001 crackdown, there have been no independent newspapers or magazines published. For news, the population has to rely on Soviet-style government media and a few foreign radio stations whose signals can only be received in the capital Asmara, says RSF.

According to Human Rights Watch, there are serious concerns about prison conditions in Eritrea. Many of those arrested are held incommunicado in secret detention sites, and prison escapees have reported that prisoners are subjected to psychological and physical torture.

CPJ notes that a recent anonymous report which first appeared on http://www.aigaforum.com paints a picture of the brutal prison conditions in which the 13 jailed journalists live. It claims that jailed opposition leaders and journalists were moved to a secretly built prison in 2003, which is located in the desert and accessible only by foot.

CPJ's sources said they believed that the description of the place was credible but some of the report's details were inaccurate. They could not verify its claim that at least three journalists had died in custody.

The report has also been posted on http://www.awate.com and http://www.asmarino.com.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

1) Write a letter calling for the journalists' release: http://www.pen.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/770/prmID/174

2) Stay informed. Visit these links:
- CPJ: http://www.cpj.org/news/2006/africa/eritrea15sept06na.html
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=18887
- Human Rights Watch: - http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/05/05/ethiop10659.htm
- Freedom House: http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=22&year=2006&country=6959
- Meftih: http://meftih.com
(Map: © Human Rights Watch)

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