April 27, 2012
It might seem a daunting challenge to determine which of the world's repressive nations offers the least-free news media. We have so many to choose from - Iran, North Korea, Belarus ...
But you might be surprised by the unanimity among organizations that study such things, like Reporters Without Borders, a French group. The consensus choice is Eritrea, a tiny nation most people cannot even pinpoint on a map.
Eritrea, a desperately poor desert state about the size of Pennsylvania, lives in an ugly neighborhood on the Horn of Africa, between Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. But as tyrannical as the neighbors might be, Eritrea is in a league of its own. Conditions there are so bad that an estimated 25 percent of the population has fled over the past 20 years, even though the government classifies emigrants as "traitors," and border guards are ordered to shoot them on sight.
A secret slogan among Eritrea's youth: "Leave to live."
In fact, Eritrea might be the most repressive nation on Earth. Many thousands of imprisoned journalists, former government officials, religious leaders and others are held indefinitely without charge in 314 detention centers - some with their hands and feet shackled, others tied to a cross or hung upside down, Human Rights Watch reported. Some prisons are deep underground; one is 229 feet below sea level, where temperatures are reported to reach 140 degrees. Deaths from dehydration and heatstroke are common.
"Eritrea's government is turning the state into a giant prison," Human Rights Watch said.
Why don't you know about this? In 2001, a few days after the 9/11 attacks - when the world was so preoccupied that no one would notice - President Isaias Afewerki shut down the nation's independent media and sent scores of journalists to those secret underground jails. There most of them remain today. Unspeakable torture is routine, and some have died - "victims of indifference," Reporters Without Borders said.
All that remained was a handful of sycophantic state-owned newspapers, TV and radio stations, so that for the past 11 years there's been no way to know what's actually happening there. Nongovernmental organizations are forbidden to open offices, and foreign correspondents are seldom allowed in.
Still, over and over again for the past decade, international journalism organizations - the Committee to Protect Journalists, the African Press Organization, the International Federation of Journalists - have been begging Western nations to "end the apathy of the international community," as one of them put it.
Still today, no one knows, no one cares.
The organizations recognize that the ill-treatment of the media is just the most public symptom of a larger problem - a national leader, like so many others, whose only aspiration is to cling to power no matter how barbaric he needs to be. But most other dictators, like North Korea's Kim family, are largely passive, unresponsive to suffering - unless directly threatened. Not Afewerki.
As one Eritrean who fled told the BBC: "I realize there are problems everywhere, but Eritrea is unique. It's like the Middle Ages. How can we live like this?"
Eritrea used to be an Italian colony. Later, Ethiopia annexed it. But after a 30-year civil war, the country won independence in 1991. Afewerki has been the nation's leader ever since and remarked last year that he won't hold elections "for three or four decades." The State Department's human rights report said his government continues "the practice of summary executions and shooting individuals on sight near mining camps and border regions."
Nonetheless, the world paid no attention, none at all, until finally Eritrea made a fateful error. In 2010, Afewerki began supplying arms and supplies to the Al Shabab Islamist militants in Somalia, hoping they would attack their shared enemy, Ethiopia.
Finally the world did take notice. The United Nations Security Council, utterly silent for so long, voted without a dissenting voice to order an arms embargo and take other punitive measures intended to end that assistance for Al Shabab.
The European Union followed suit, at the same time continuing to provide so-called developmental aid: $160 million over five years - despite years of angry, desperate calls from journalism and human-rights groups that called the continuing payments "incomprehensible."
Finally, a few months ago, Afewerki told Europe: Forget it. We don't want your money anymore. Earlier, he told the United States the same thing. Giving money provided aid agencies the opportunity to meddle. Washington stopped providing $65 million in aid each year.
As Afewerki put it: "We don't want to be pushed around. Leave us alone." And the world seems all too happy to comply.
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.
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