Pen International Oral Statement on Freedom of Expression in Eritrea

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UN Human Rights Council 35th Special Session

Item 4: Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention

Delivered by Sarah Clarke, PEN International

14 June 2017

Mr President,

PEN International remains deeply concerned by the severe restrictions on freedom of expression in Eritrea, which in 2017 continues to be one of the worst jailers of writers and dissident voices, earning the dubious honour of the most censored country in the world in 2015, and ranking 179 out of 180 on RSF’s 2017 Press Freedom Index.

Since the government crackdown on dissent on 18 September 2001 and the following days, when 11 government officials, 12 journalists, and numerous other dissidents were arrested, there has been no independent media, no registered political parties apart from the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and no national elections in the country. In the years following the 2001 crackdown, several other journalists and writers have also been arrested.

PEN is aware of at least 16 journalists currently held incommunicado without trial or in circumstances amounting to enforced disappearance, some of whom are believed to have died in the appalling conditions of Eritrean prisons. Their deaths – which have not been officially confirmed – have been attributed to harsh conditions and lack of medical attention. The Foreign Minister of Eritrea claimed in an interview with Radio France Internationale in June 2016 that all of the journalists and politicians arrested in the wide-spread crackdown on dissent in 2001 are alive, though no proof has been provided. In the same interview, the foreign minister said that these men would be tried ‘when the government decides’ and that they are ‘political prisoners.’

Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak – who was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2017 – is one of many journalists detained incommunicado. Isaak was arrested alongside other journalists as part of the September 2001 crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press and his case is emblematic of the dire situation facing journalists in the country. Almost 16 years on, there has been no justice for the arbitrary arrests of Dawit Isaak and the other journalists detained in 2001, and family members have been left in the dark as to their whereabouts and well-being.

In addition to the appalling conditions faced by the detained journalists, extensive censorship practices have also severely restricted literary, artistic and cultural production. The lack of independent media, the systematic harassment and censorship of the creative community have destroyed independent thinking in Eritrea, and left it extremely isolated on the world stage.

In light of the dire situation for freedom of expression and human rights in the country, PEN International encourages the Human Rights Council to:

  • Urge the Eritrean government to either provide proof of life for the journalists and writers or to confirm the circumstances of their deaths. Wherever possible, we also urge you to grant their immediate and unconditional release.
  • Ensure accountability and justice for the victims of crimes committed by urging the Security Council to refer Eritrea to the International Criminal Court (ICC); and recommending the African Union to establish an accountability mechanism.
  • Renew the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea
  • Urge the Eritrean government to abolish the existing pervasive censorship practices, re-establish an independent media and allow international media unfettered access to the country
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