"Why not Eritrea?" That is the centerpiece of a chirpy public relations campaign to persuade the United States to use that African country as a military base. The impoverished Eritreans are paying a well-connected lobbying firm here $50,000 per month to help make it happen.

A good person to answer that -- why not Eritrea? -- might be Fesshaye Yohannes, 47, a noted Eritrean journalist and playwright. Fesshaye fought for Eritrea's independence from Ethiopia and then, once it was achieved, established what became the nation's largest-circulation newspaper.

Unfortunately, you can't ask him. Eritrea's government has had him locked up for more than a year, and won't say where or, for that matter, why. But the reason is no secret: Eritrea's authoritarian rulers have shuttered the independent press, postponed elections and jailed those who dare criticize them. Now they hope that America's war on terror will give them a free pass. And they may be right.

The tension between America's support of free speech and its preoccupation with fighting terror emerges as something of a theme in the awards for press freedom that will be bestowed in New York City tomorrow night by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Fesshaye is one winner of the annual honors; the others are Irina Petrushova of Kazakhstan, Tipu Sultan of Bangladesh and Ignacio Gomez of Colombia.

Like human rights activists in many countries, journalists struggling to tell the truth are the first to notice when America's attention wavers or its priorities shift. "The anti-terror war," Gomez said, "can lead America to have wrong friends."

And the tension operates on another level too: John Ashcroft, with his tough talk of curtailing liberty in the service of national security, has become every dictator's favorite exemplar. Eritrea's ambassador to Washington, Girma Asmerom, assured me in a telephone conversation last week that locking up the nation's independent journalists without charge was perfectly consistent with democratic practice. As proof, he cited America's roundup of material witnesses and suspected aliens.

And in insinuating that Eritrea's journalists were taking money from enemy Ethiopia, he asked, "How long would an American newspaper last if it was taking money from al Qaeda?"

So Fesshaye was taking money from the enemy? "No, no, no," the ambassador replied; the charges will be made clear in due course.

The language that dictators and their lackeys use to justify repression is depressing in its sameness: African or European, Arab or Burmese, it hardly seems to matter. Fesshaye, 47, was arrested in September 2001, along with most of Eritrea's independent press corps; his newspaper, Setit, was closed down. The National Assembly explained that "the private newspapers by their wanton irresponsibility had provoked the anger of the people who demanded that they be closed and sighed with relief when they were temporarily suspended." Elections could not be held "due to obstacles created by external forces and the defeatists." But the Horn of Africa is suddenly strategically valuable to the United States. Hire a lobbyist, and maybe the democracy stuff won't matter.

Central Asia is strategically useful too and -- worse luck for Kazakhstan's democrats -- swimming in oil besides. Its potentate, former Communist boss Nursultan Nazarbayev, has had newspapers shut and reporters threatened, beaten, jailed, tortured, expelled and disappeared. Often their crime is "insulting the honor and dignity of the president."

Petrushova and her newspaper, Respublika, showed the bad taste to report on the $1 billion of oil revenue that Nazarbayev had stashed in a Swiss bank account, CPJ reports, along with numerous other tales of cronyism, nepotism and corruption. As a consequence, she found a decapitated dog hanging by the newspaper window; a screwdriver plunged into the body pinned the message, "There will be no next time." The dog's head was waiting for her at home.

Petrushova fled to Russia, from where she edits the newspaper by Internet. To protect them, she lives apart from her family. Even so, she is thus far luckier than some. Sergei Duvanov, another courageous journalist in Kazakhstan, was badly beaten in August and then, days before he was to leave for a trip to the United States, thrown into prison on rape charges.

U.S. officials dutifully condemn such outrages from time to time. But President Bush also welcomed Nazarbayev to the White House last December to celebrate "the long-term, strategic partnership and cooperation between our nations," as the two leaders said in a joint statement.

Such is the balancing act, carefully calibrated and nuanced, of a superpower at war. From inside a prison in Eritrea or Kazakhstan, the nuances may be difficult to appreciate.

e-mail: fredhiatt@washpost.com