Photo: IPFA recipients Mebrahtu Teclesion Berhe and Dessale Berekhet Abraham. Note: Ruth Zecarias asked for her photo to be withheld due to security concerns.
Mebrahtu Teclesion Berhe, Ruth Zecarias and Dessale Berekhet Abraham are three Eritrean journalists who created Unitedheartz, a journalism website that sought to provide an outlet for free expression on issues concerning the Eritrean diaspora. They are joint recipients of a 2013 International Press Freedom Award.
Mebrahtu Teclesion Berhe is an Eritrean journalist, researcher and human rights activist currently exiled in Uganda. Mebrahtu had anonymously contributed some articles in collaboration with Dessale Berkhet who was an investigative reporter for state controlled magazine ‘Hidri’, where he took great risks to report on sensitive subjects under the country’s heavily restricted media policy following the infamous crackdown on independent media in 2001.
While investigating the detention of students in military camps in 2001 (including the country’s infamous Wi’A prison), he was arrested, interrogated and tortured by army officers; and after completion of university education, and he was sent to Sawa Military camp as extension of Wi’A imprisonment. Besides, he attempted to organize a “Research Group” in Research and Documentation Center (RDC) with his some colleagues having the tendency to promote academic freedom, but sooner the initiative got weakened and disappeared because of tight administrative bureaucracy and dejection in RDC, work pressure, and financial problems. After two failed escape attempts and mandatory employment as a teacher in Sawa military camps, Mebrahtu was able to flee to Sudan and ultimately settle in Uganda in 2009.
Determined to shed light on the situation in his home country, Mebrahtu has since gained asylum status in Uganda while freelancing; and he has become a fervent advocate for free expression rights and democracy in Eritrea.
On June 1, 2013, following the initial promotion of Unitedvoices Media Center Mebrahtu was attacked by two unidentified assailants causing injuries to his neck, face, and back; and previously failed attempt of stealing his laptop. After receiving emergency financial assistance from CJFE and International Media Support (IMS) in July, Mebrahtu resumed efforts to launch and promote UMC, and continues to work passionately from Kampala for the protection and promotion of free expression.
Ruth is a journalist with a specialty in radio journalism. Also have over four years professional experience in writing and editing for broadcasting and print media. Her core skill set is to work as an investigative journalist, specializing in critical situations and war zones.
After completing her higher education in the field of Journalism & Mass Communication in University of Asmara in 2006 she was assigned by the government to the Eritrean Ministry of Information. It’s obvious that most journalists face significant challenges in the State of Eritrea. As a journalist and as a woman, she also experienced this unfortunate situation first hand .There were times that just being a woman meant she was treated differently. She witnessed similar instances with many of her colleagues. There was a very conservative imposed censorship within the system which deliberately blocked important issues as she wrote regarding women’s right and other issue of the economical instability.And also while she was working on weekly radio program of “Women’s Issues” her articles used to pass through many hands other than that of the editor so that acute women’s problems in the country will not be raised, and if raised will be omitted. She also used to get a bad impression from the Eritrean women association which is led and masterminded by women appointed by the government.
As a woman and professional journalist, she worked hard to show her commitment and contribute to counter this problem. This inspired her to focus pilots on women’s issues, rights, roles in the society, maternity and new born children. As her country descended into war in 1998 many women lost their husbands and children to the war. Most of these were simple housewives. As a result the families developed economic and social problems. She worked on these issues by hosting experts who explained how to handle these critical problems with the media. And she got a good response from the audience, for her as a woman it gave her a good motivation to continue research in this area. In retrospect, working on that pilot series enabled her development, as a producer.
The shows were received well by the public and she received professional acclaim. Unfortunately, due to the totalitarian behavior of the Eritrean regime, the very popularity of the shows offended some leaders and her name was registered in the organization’s blacklist and got a last warning.On top of that, ever since she was assigned at the ministry, she used to outspokenly express her resentment during weekly staff meetings about the mistreatment and illegal arrest of journalists and also about the worsening state of journalism in Eritrea. She was expressing her resentment especially over what she was being forced to write.
In all these periods during which she suffered a number of threats she was not in a position to obtain protection, she was simply a helpless journalist whose only way out was fleeing Eritrea. Therefore in February 2012 she decided to flee from the country as the risk for her life got bigger and bigger due to her profession but as soon as she met with the co-founders of Unitedheartz members Dessale BereKet, Mebrahtu Teclesion she gladly joined to contribute in their website for the actual situation on the freedom of expression in Eritrea. Those are who volunteer to struggle for the freedom of expression with their neutral ideas to let the world know what is the actual situation on the country, even though the web hacked for some time fortunately now it re-established with a new name the unitedvoices media centre.
Ruth would like to express her gratitude how pleased she is to receive the incredible award from the honorable office of CJFE as a co-recipient of one of this year's two International Press Freedom Awards (IPFAs). She appreciates CJFE’s committee for selecting her and her colleagues for Canada’s most respected journalists and activists. It‘s very amazing to be the first Eritreans to win the award of the CJFE Gala’s 15-year history.
Dessale Berekhet Abraham was born in Eritrea in mid 1970s. Most of his childhood was spent in an isolated Revolutionary School, which was run under the freedom fighters. This boarding school had strong and radical principles to which his foundation goes back to challenging paradigm of life.
His entire life in Eritrea was devoted to writing and journalism through which he used to express his inner feelings, which eventually has turned into a strong weapon against any injustice and repressive situations. He did his best to search change for justice within the country, but the condition turned into a form of suicidal as the ruling party remains so violent and vicious. He left the country in September 1, 2010. Currently, he lives in a small, but beautiful Norwegian town Bø, as a ‘Guest-writer’ under the project of ICORN – International cities of Refuge Network.
Dessale appeared on media in 1996, as a main contributor for the Tigre language national radio. With the opening of the private media out-let, he had two regular columns in both Gheled (Tigre Newspaper- by the youth association) and MeQhaliH (a private Tigrigya Newspaper). However, after the complete crack-down of 18 September 2001, he has shifted to the national newspaper ‘Hadas-Ertra’ as a columnist. Having been banned from his regular columns in the national newspaper ‘Hadas-Ertra’, in late 2005, because of his critical approach, he started a monthly column in ‘Hidri’ magazine, the official organ of the ruling party.
In mid-2006, with the help of his two colleagues he founded a cultural magazine ‘Takiyat’ (Pillar) in Tigre which he has worked as an editor-in-chief. This magazine focused more on enlightening children and youth, the future generation. In fact, most of the books he has authored or co-authored have concentrated on children and youths who are in serious challenges.
Dessale had two other children’s magazine; ‘Saeyob’ in Tigre and ‘Finan’ in Tigrigya; but the Ministry of Information refused to provide permission for their publication. Simply hinder the magnitude of the literature to develop a strong awareness among the coming new generation. Ignorance is often used as a tool to divorce the youths from the political scene of the country blocking all sort of channels through which he tried to establish; it was so hard to penetrate the society fenced by antagonistic strategies of the regime.
The young aspirant and critical writer, he was later confined to cultural affairs employed under national Research and Documentation Center (RDC) as a cultural researcher. Where he has demonstrated his wide and deep knowledge of the Eritrean society by collecting and publishing ‘Best Eritrean proverbs’ written in a dozen languages and amazingly translated into the official language- Tigrigya. He has also produced a Tigre language cultural reference book, together with an Eritrean father, veteran, author and educator late Musa Aron.
Dessale was turned from private owned into state controlled media outlets through which he was forced to serve the interest of the regime marginalizing the interest of the public though some commentators conceived as deflection from what he had done. Nonetheless, he was benefited to examine the mind settings of high figures of the government working inside the ruling party’s central office.
However, he was so careful and vigilant for not to be a tool of the narrow political interests of the ruling party. Dessale is often described as visionary, open-minded, achievement oriented and interactive person who is capable to work with any side without violating his core principles of his life. The regime continuously pressured Dessale to use him as “propaganda machine”. He never accepted it; and he stayed in Sudan for a couple of months, and fled to Uganda again.
In Uganda, he started to change his dream into practice creating a website, Unitedheartz, together with his best friend and colleague Mebrahtu Teclesion, They had a strong motive bridging the gap between the extreme pro government and radical opposition websites. The website was run by volunteers with distressful situation; and the website got destroyed. The attempt to recover the website was failed because of the reluctance and fear of the web technician. After life threatening messages were escalated he was evacuated to Norway. However, struggling for justice is not about geographical site; with his colleagues he established another website, Unitedvoices Media Center focused largely on developing a healthy culture of freedom of expression which serves the interest of the people. He says that he will never quit traveling the long road of justice until his country gets freed from the “rules of the jungle”.