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Abysmal ranking as world's worst place for journalists

Eritrea ranks last place on the latest Reporters Without Borders (RSF) index measuring the level of press freedom in 173 countries. Privately owned press have been banished by the authoritarian President Issaias Afeworki since 2001, and the few journalists who dare to criticise the regime are thrown in prison, says RSF. Four journalists have died in detention and, currently, at least 30 journalists and two media workers are believed to be in prison without trial.

Journalists have been rounded up in several waves of arrests in the last eight years: September 2001, November 2006 and February 2009. Many are being held in metal containers or underground cells in an archipelago of prisons or one of several detention centres scattered around the country, says RSF.

President Afeworki, a former rebel leader, has eroded the hopes Eritreans had for their country before independence, says RSF. The head of state set the political police upon the reformist wing of the ruling party on 18 September 2001. Former companions in arms, ministers and influential generals were thrown into prison. Independent newspapers appearing in the capital, Asmara, were banned, and editors and publishers arrested. Criticism of the regime is condemned as "damaging national security".

Aaron Berhane, an Eritrean journalist in exile in Canada, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that many members of the media had been fighters in the bloody conflict with Ethiopia that ended in 2000. "Because we had challenged the government or its policies, we were facing increasing hostility and enduring police harassment." Afeworki's refusal to implement the constitution was covered in the columns of the country's newspapers. Berhane was not at home the night security agents came for him but many of his colleagues were arrested. Journalists Fessehaye Yohannes, Yusuf Mohamed Ali, Saïd Abdelkader and Medhanie Haile all died in prison, and he told CPJ he does not know about the rest.

"Eight years after President Issaias Afeworki took his country on a tragic new course, it is time for him to change direction again and agree to release the imprisoned journalists or try them according to international norms," says RSF. "We count on the Swedish government, the current holder of the European Union presidency, to obtain concessions from Issaias, especially as one of the jailed journalists [Dawit Isaac] holds dual Swedish and Eritrean citizenship."

Isaac, the founder of the now banned weekly "Setit", was arrested on 23 September 2001. In an interview with a Swedish journalist, Afeworki said he would never negotiate with Sweden for the journalist's release.

The public media in Eritrea is a propaganda machine for the regime's belligerent and ultra-nationalist discourse, comments RSF. Many journalists go into exile, most leaving on foot and taking the risk of being killed by border patrols who have received the order to shoot on sight. Foreign correspondents in the country have been chased out as a result of harassment, intimidation or expulsion.

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