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Last Updated: Friday, 10 September, 2004, 12:47 GMT 13:47 UK
Quick exit: BBC expelled from Eritrea
By Jonah Fisher
Former BBC correspondent in Asmara

BBC's Jonah Fisher and President Isaias Afewerki shaking hands
Jonah and President Afewerki in happier times
The plane took off from Asmara airport and circled left before heading over arid desert to Khartoum and then Nairobi. After 18 months reporting for the BBC from Eritrea I had been expelled.

As the only international correspondent in Eritrea my position had always been tightly scrutinised, but over the last month it had become tenuous.

Three weeks ago, a conversation with Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed about what he called my "racist negative reporting" ended with him announcing that he "knew who I really worked for".

He claimed to have been closely monitoring my phone calls, e-mails and activities.

All discussions with government spokesmen dried up and I was informed that I needed a ministry of information permit to venture into the countryside beyond the capital, Asmara - permits which were never granted.

It was thus no great surprise when I was summoned by a government official this week to be told I had three days to leave the country.

No explanation was given but as a foreigner I am fortunate. Had I been Eritrean I have little doubt that I would now be in detention.

News monopoly

In the aftermath of the bloody border conflict with Ethiopia, the private press in Eritrea was shut down in 2001 and most journalists fled or were detained.

Eritrean president
What is free press? There is no free press anywhere
President Isaias Afewerki

The ministry of information has a total monopoly over domestic news - with television, radio and newspapers all falling under its control.

A few local journalists continued filing for international organisations, but over the last year most of them have either been detained or had their permits withheld.

Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki has regularly called the detained journalists "agents of foreign countries" and when I spoke to him earlier this year I asked him why he had so little faith in independent media.

"What is free press? There is no free press anywhere," he said.

"It's not in England; it's not in the United States. We'd like to know what free press is in the first place."

Frustration

News agendas within the country can thus be entirely dictated by government.

To name a recent example, it was a full week after Eritrean immigrants hijacked a plane forcing it to land in the Sudanese capital Khartoum that any mention of it was made in the national press.

Street scene of the Eritrean capital Asmara
Despite his expulsion Jonah has fond memories of Asmara
My report on what human rights groups said awaited the forcibly returned Eritreans was my last broadcast from Asmara.

While reporting, the use of just one word, for example calling the border with Ethiopia "disputed", could bring the authorities down on me heavily.

For Eritrea, the border is now fixed under the ruling of an independent boundary commission, a ruling which Ethiopia has rejected.

During my time in Eritrea many people spoke to me of their frustration that the long struggle for freedom from Ethiopia could have given birth to this authoritarian regime.

With arbitrary detentions common, these were thoughts that out of necessity had to remain private.

Despite the professional difficulties, the memories which I take from my time in Eritrea are overwhelmingly positive: the beauty of Asmara; the turquoise Red Sea; the rugged mountain highlands and most of all the friendship and stoicism of the people I met.


SEE ALSO:
New unity in Eritrean opposition
15 Aug 04  |  Africa
Fresh Annan push for Horn peace
04 Jul 04  |  Africa
Country profile: Eritrea
16 Jul 04  |  Country profiles


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