A short, angry exchange broke out yesterday in this blog.  A defender of Eritrea took exception to the strong criticism of its regime by a commenter.

Let’s take a brief look at the way both countries treat press freedom.

One way to know, or at least have a sense of, what’s happening in a country is through the media.  Both Ethiopia and Eritrea make that either difficult or impossible.

Ethiopia jails or intimidates its media critics, though sometimes it only beats them bloody and sends them to the hospital.  Some journalists have gone into exile.  Websites with news or criticism are routinely blocked, following the example of China, whose government Meles admires in many ways.  Ethiopia jams Voice of America broadcasts, to which the Obama administration has meekly acquiesced, it seems.   Ethiopia’s policy makes it clear that the government is afraid of what its citizens might do if they knew that their leaders were getting away with murder, sometimes literally.

But Eritrea is far worse.  There is no press at all, just a government ‘news’ bureau.  The entire independent press was officially shut down years ago.  Journalists were arrested, fled for their lives or changed professions.  This is consistent with the regime’s iron-fisted policy of arresting any and all dissenters. Reports of torture are widespread and credible, not least from prison guards who have fled the country.

When 15 of Isaias’ close colleagues from the liberation war wrote to him in 2001 to ask for a meeting to discuss implementing the new constitution now that the war with Ethiopia was over, his response was to arrest all of the signers who were in the country (12 of the 15).  Not a single one of them has ever been heard from again. Not one, not once. Even their families have had no word in nine years, and don’t know if they are alive or dead.  The signers were among the Isaiais’ closest advisors and most senior leaders during the independence war and the subsequent ten years.

The BBC gave up and withdrew its last Asmara-based correspondent years ago.  There is no resident international press at all in Eritrea. ‘News’ is whatever the government hands out, if anything. Journalists are allowed into the country when it serves the interests of the government.  This happens infrequently.  The rare business traveler or tourist is constantly watched, making candid conversations impossible.

It is clear that Ethiopia is a nasty abuser of the press and of free speech, but it is equally clear that Eritrea is so much worse that they can’t be seriously compared. Both are among the worst abusers of press freedom on the planet. The difference is that Eritrea makes no pretense of having a press in the first place.

Here are two articles about press freedom, the first in Eritrea, the second in Ethiopia.  In both cases, the original source is Reporters Without Borders.

http://af.reuters.com/article/eritreaNews/idAFLDE6420JR20100503

Eritrea is Africa’s “biggest prison for media,” RSF


http://en.rsf.org/ethiopie-reporters-without-borders-writes-06-05-2010,37394.html

Reporters Without Borders writes to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi