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By Joel Brinkley
It might seem a daunting challenge to determine which of the world's repressive nations offers the least-free news media. We have so many to choose from -- Iran, North Korea, Belarus ...
But you may be surprised by the unanimity among organizations that study such things, like Reporters Without Borders, a French group. The consensus choice is Eritrea, a tiny nation most people cannot even pinpoint on a map.
Eritrea, a desperately poor desert state about the size of Pennsylvania, lives in an ugly neighborhood on the Horn of Africa, between Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. But as tyrannical as the neighbors might be, they put Eritrea to shame. Conditions there are so bad that an estimated 25 percent of the population has fled over the last 20 years, even though the government classifies emigrants as "traitors," and border guards are ordered to shoot them on sight.
A secret slogan among Eritrea's youth: "Leave to live."
In fact, Eritrea may be the most repressive nation on earth. Many thousands of imprisoned journalists, former government officials, religious leaders and others are held indefinitely without charge in 314 detention centers -- some with their hands and feet shackled, others tied to a cross or hung upside down,
"Eritrea's government is turning the state into a giant prison,"
Why don't you know about this? In 2001, a few days after the 9/11 attacks -- when the world was so preoccupied that no one would notice -- President Isaias Afewerki shut down all the nation's independent media and sent scores of journalists to those secret underground jails. There most of them remain today. Unspeakable torture is routine, and some have died -- "victims of indifference," Reporters Without Borders said.
All that remained was a handful of sycophantic state-owned newspapers, TV and radio stations so that for the last 11 years there's been no way to know what's actually happening there. NGOs are forbidden to open offices, and foreign correspondents are seldom allowed in.
Still, over and over again for the last decade, international journalism organizations -- the Committee to Protect Journalists,
Still today, no one knows, no one cares.
The organizations recognize that the ill-treatment of the media is just the most public symptom of a larger problem - a national leader, like so many others, whose only aspiration is to cling to power no matter how barbaric he needs to be. But most other dictators, like North Korea's Kim family, are largely passive, unresponsive to suffering -- unless directly threatened. Not Afewerki.
As one Eritrean who fled told the
Eritrea used to be an Italian colony. Later, Ethiopia annexed it. But after a 30-year civil war, the country won independence in 1991. Afewerki has been the nation's leader ever since and remarked last year that he won't hold elections "for three or four decades."
Nonetheless, the world paid no attention. None at all -- until finally Eritrea made a fateful error. In 2010, Afewerki began supplying arms and supplies to the Al Shabab Islamist militants in Somalia, hoping they would attack their shared enemy, Ethiopia.
Finally the world did take notice.
As Afewerki put it: "We don't want to be pushed around. Leave us alone." And the world seems all too happy to comply.
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World - Eritrea May Be World's Most Repressive Nation | Global Viewpoint