Radio Erena: 18 September 2021
Reporting on the blitzkrieg arrest of the free press journalists in Eritrea on the 18th of September 2001, Reporters Without Borders (R.S.F) labeled the day as the “Black Day of the Eritrean Journalism”. Indeed, it was. It also was a black day for Eritrean nationhood as the Security Forces, on direct orders from the President, rounded up all the members of the Group-15, shortly known as the G-15.
It is not a decorative metaphor to describe the journalists and the high-profile fighters who were arrested on that day as the conscience of the nation. What happened on that day is available in complete details and fragments. I would like to share certain aspects of this national milestone event as we are recalling this dark day twenty years later.
The arrest of the journalists and the G-15 members had one deep root: to quell the criticism against the dictator and to hinder the forthcoming reform. Both the journalists and the G-15 members worked in tandem to place the confrontation against the dictator at the center of the intellectual and reformist ground. G-15 provided the agenda, the journalists the venue.
Additionally, both relied, lawfully, on the National Charter adopted in the 3rd Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (E.P.L.F) Congress in Nakfa in 1994. The Charter plainly called for a multi-party elected government system, free press, and market economy for the newly born nation; such values were the demands and aspirations of the Eritrean national struggle for independence.
Starting from late 1997 to the end of 1999, the G-15 called for the regular convening of the meetings of the Party organs to discuss urgent national issues such as the drafting of the electoral code, enforcement of the Constitution and the related issues. The President, on his part, kept dragging his feet and delaying the meetings. The border war in 1998-2000 brought the confrontation to the forefront; its battlefield was the pages of the nascent free press. Criticism reached its peak when the generals and the high-ranking ministers members of the G-15 called for holding the President accountable for the mismanagement of the war; including his outright rejection of the peace deals which could have saved the lives of Eritrean youths.
By nature, dictators are intolerant to criticism. The President went mad especially when the criticism was in public and was greeted with wholesome embrace by the people as the selling of private newspapers soared.
Publicly accused of treason and subversion, the arrested journalists and G-15 members were never brought to court of justice and had never enjoyed the due process of law at whatever judiciary level. This brings us to the dimension of the punishment in today’s Eritrea.
Held incommunicado and solitary confinement, the aim of such punishment was simply to break the prisoners’ souls; to stigmatize their families and relatives and ultimately to demean and frighten the people through the absolute deterrence.
Twenty years later, a similar situation is arising. Eritrean forces are involved in a war across the border in Ethiopia. War fought under one reason: prolonging the dictator’s days at the helm. Squandering Eritrean blood and resources is raising high-pitched criticism, mainly in the diaspora as the people are silenced with fear inside. If those who are now criticizing the dictator’s war were inside, they could have ended up in the same dungeons with G-15 and the journalists. Yet, the verbal attack against the dictator’s criticizers is mounting under the eternal labels of treason and sedition.
The lessons of the dark 18 September are fully learned by the people; only the dictator never learns from his past lessons and fatally committed to repeat the same mistakes which will no doubt bring the end of his tyranny.
By Fathi Osman