By Jonah Fisher
BBC correspondent in Asmara
Friday, 10 September, 2004
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.
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.
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
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
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
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. BBC News