Truth Telling, Painful At That

Last Tuesday April 27th 2010, there was a conference held at the national press club in Washington DC. The event was organized by the press advocacy group reporters sans frontiers (rsf) and the national press club under the banner “truth tellers”. Eritrean independent journalist Milkias Mihretab Yohannes was the speaker at the event. Milkias, shares his experience as to what it means to be a journalist in Eritrea. He told the audience as to what it means to be hounded and followed 24 hour a day by government intelligence forces for simply writing the truth. Despite the 1996, press law and the legal establishment of news papers in Eritrea, the Eritrean government and its official’s were hostile to the notion of free press, criticism and the very idea of a citizen’s right to freedom of speech. Milkias tells the different tactic the Eritrean government used to stifle, muzzle and eventually close the entire free press on September 2001. 


 Like millions of Eritreans, Milkias was happy to see Eritrea getting its independence in 1991 and the beginning of a new dawn and era for Eritreans after centuries of subjugation by different powers and colonizers. Many Eritreans including the independent press’s courageous young journalists didn’t understand the real nature and true identity of the ruling front in power in Asmara. They, like many fellow countrymen believes an era of democracy, elections, rule of law and free and vibrant press is on after so many years of struggle , suffering and fight for  independence. Soon the Eritrean regime begun to show its true color by first arresting Eritrean journalist Ruth SIMON OF AFP and then Milkias was the first among the independent media journalists to be charged and arrested in 1999. Milkias told the audience how ridiculous and even funny can be the charges against his paper and others also. Any journalist can be charged with defamation, incitement to violence, endangering national security, threat against unity etc. A simple criticism of a government organ, department or official can be turned as a big case and the journalist can be thrown to jail with little legal recourse or indefinitely as is the case now. Several of the independent journalists were being falsely accused and labeled different kinds of names by the ruling dictatorship in Asmara. CIA agents, Ethiopian stooges, agents of destabilizations,, terrorists etc were thrown against the brave journalists on many occasions. 


Milkias speaks about the appalling and terrible conditions the Eritrean journalists are currently in. The daily death and suffering of Eritrean journalists and others were a pain full experience to him and many Eritreans. So far around eight journalists had died, including Milkias’s friend, colleague and assistant editor of Kestedebena news paper Medhanie Haile Afley, in the notorious ERAERO prison in the deserts of Eritrea and other places according to credible sources and recent escapees. The conditions of other illegally detained journalists including the Swedish/Eritrean journalist Dawit Issac are not encouraging. A recently escaped prison guard and supervisor gave a detailed grim report of the conditions of the jailed Eritrean journalists and other political prisoners. Milkias said that to see a small nation of some 5 million people, to be filled with gulags and dungeons is, one of the sad events of this century. Human rights groups, intelligence and media reports and exiled Eritreans report of the existence of hundreds of prisons and detention centers all over Eritrea. No one is brought to justice, courts or even being interrogated all these years and many are languishing with almost no hope of release by the government. 


Milkias Mihretab Yohannes, also presented the participants a power point presentations of some photos and events in the realm of independent press. He showed and told the audience photos of the dead and imprisoned journalists and the terrible predicament they are in. Photos of Dawit Habtemichael, Medhanie Haile, Said Abdul kader, Yirgalem Fisseha, Dawit Isaac and Fessehaye Yohannes”Joshua” Was presented by power pint projections to the audience at the national Press club. Milkias critiqued the international community for neglecting the disastrous human rights condition in Eritrea for long time. At the same time, he thanked press advocacy and human rights organizations like the RSF, CPJ Amnesty international and others. He especially thanked reporters sans frontiers, the Paris Based journalist’s organization and its committed African desk staff and head, for steadfastly standing with the case of Eritrean journalists and for not forgetting their plight all these years. 


 For many years, Milkias said, the whole world didn’t notice or didn’t care about what is going on Eritrea. But with the current impositions of sanctions against the Eritrean regime, there is much attention and focus in the area of human rights and the gross right’s violations taking place in Eritrea. The recent admission or statement by the Eritrean ambassador in the EU, in the case of Dawit Isaac is a hopeful sign in the otherwise gleam and desperate situation, Milkias elaborated. There is a talk of bringing Dawit Isaac to court and charge him, according to the PFDJ’S man and representative in Brussels .How far this is true no one knows and only time will tell. 


Prior to Milkias’s presentation, RSF US director, Miss Clothlide le coz gave a brief explanation about Eritrea, the status  of the media and the calamity befallen on the entire press and its journalists. She said that every year Eritrea and North Korea are worst violators of press interchangeably. The last 3 or so years Eritrea tops North Korea as the world’s worst violator of press freedom and jailer of Journalists. China, with some 1 billion people has fewer journalists in prison than Eritrea with population of just 5 million!! Eritrea puts more journalists than many other countries, said Miss le Coz of RSF.  There is no foreign news agency correspondent in Eritrea and to get news and information is very difficult, said the US director of RSF. She also said that some 25 journalists are in jail right now, but with lack of information and news from Eritrea and the unwillingness of the Eritrean government to disclose the facts; these numbers might be more or less. Miss Le coz further stated that truth tellers like Milkias and others are indispensable tools in this regard. RSF has hosted several truth tellers’ events in recent days. 


Milkias plead to the international community and the western nations in particular to do all they can and exert maximum pressure against the Eritrean regime, to release the detained Journalists and other prisoners of consciousness in Eritrea. He told the gathering about the daily escape and fleeing of Eritreans from intolerable and barbaric conditions in Eritrea. Among the exiles and refugees are many Eritrean Journalists, media professionals, government and media workers and journalists and other media and press personalities. Some Eritrean journalists decided to from an association of Eritrean journalists in exile, and in 2009 formed the Association of Eritrean journalists in Exile AEJE based in Stockholm, Sweden. This organization’s paramount task and endeavor according to Mister Milkias is to fight for the right of the incarcerated and unjustly detained journalists in Eritrea, to advocate on their behalf, to work for awareness of their conditions and dilemma, so that they will not be forgotten and help and assist their families and loved ones in any way possible. Some 50 or so Eritrean journalists and media experts are in exile all over the world and most are members of AEJE and with the continuing clampdown on press and freedom by  the Issias Afewerki regime, it is expected more journalists to flee Eritrea, Milkias said. All indications show of discouraging signs and harsh realities in the case of the prisoners and Eritrea at large, according to Milkias Mihretab. But in conclusion, Milkias cited the Iranian Journalist and known human right’s activist, Akhbar Ganji who said the following” to be pessimist and cynic in the face of tyranny, is the greatest gift one can give to the oppressor……”.  So I am not utter pessimist and I wish to see one day a free democratic Eritrea with elected government, rule of law, justice, peace, normalcy and a vibrant and lively press so that many of us can resume a profession or calling we are addicted in and in which many gave their life for, Milkias M yohannes Said.. There were Eritreans and different kinds of people among the audiences.  A Representative of the Swedish government, human rights watch, Cato institute and journalists were among the attendees. 


There were two or three PFDJ die hard supporters in the Washington DC area among the participants at the national press club. One of them, Michael Sium tried to discredit and attack Mister Milkias by raising unrelated issues of Mister Milkias’s previous award and how good the Eritrean government is and typical pfdj gibberish. Mister Milkias lambasted the well known Higdef advocate in the Washington Metropolitan area, that if Eritrea is good as you are saying, why don’t you go to Eritrea. It is painful to see Eritreans like you while living and enjoying the amenities and rights of western democracies and calling for tyranny back home, but I am not that astonished as even Hitler has his supporters,Milkias said.. As a journalist and human being, mister Milkias told the HIGDEFITE you should be ashamed to support a regime that is considered as a greatest murderer of free press and journalists in the entire world. While hundreds of thousands of Cubans, Iranians and other refugees and exiles here in the states and everywhere fight and call for democratic change, release of prisoners and free elections, to see people like you sitting amidst a democratic nation and society and supporting tyranny and fascism back home is unbelievable and shocking……I didn’t know you, though I have heard a lot about you, so it is good to see you, said Mister Mikias to the visibly shaken PFDJ man In the DC area. To the question raised by mister Michel sium as to why milkias didn’t speak good about Eritrea, Milkias replied jokingly” I apologized for my unpatriotic comment, Eritrea is better than Sweden, Norway, Brazil and others so I am sorry…”  Milkias told the PFDJ enthusiasts at the hall that he personally doesn’t feel good at speaking about the tragedies in Eritrea. Telling the truth and facts doesn’t mean one is unpatriotic and or un nationalist as you are claiming. Many American journalists boldly denounced the US’s action and war in Vietnam and even now they criticized and question many actions of their government elsewhere and at home. That doesn’t mean they are unpatriotic or un- American or didn’t love their land.  A journalist and writer’s main job is telling the truth and that is what we are doing now, Milkias affirmed.  The fact, reality and the simple truth is that, things are extremely bad and conditions are unbearable to many Eritreans back home. That is why thousands are escaping every day to neighboring countries and elsewhere, Milkias replied. The catastrophe and tragedy fallen on Eritrea and its people is so massive and huge and any one can see it easily on what is going on. On the invitation by Mister Michel Sium to the audience that any one can go to Eritrea and see for them selves…, Milkias replied that, let alone any one in this hall to go to Eritrea, your government famously, and in disregard of diplomatic protocol and norms has denied a visa to the head of African desk at the state department. Even if you go to Eritrea (he was addressing Mister Michel Sium), there is a chance that you might even be arrested as there is absolute lunacy there. Mister Milkias further spoke and pose questions forcefully, to the visibly shaken PFDJ lackeys in the hall that “can you vote in Eritrea? Is there elections? Can you oppose the government, ? Can you go and visit prisoners? While you vote and select every four or so years here in America from mayors to the president, and calling for Fascistic system of government in Eritrea, is beyond my understanding Mister Milkias Mihretab yohannes told the three or so HIGDEFITES at the hall. 


After the questions and answers session, Many People expressed their solidarity with Eritrean journalists and the Eritrean people who are denied their basic and God given rights for so long. Many expressed their wish to see Eritreans free from this despotism and join the family of nations it so deserves.   


Source: Eritrean Law Society


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