The most troubling fact about the journalists imprisoned in Eritrea is the dearth of available information. Targeted during two waves of journalist arrests carried out in September 2001 and November 2006, the group, currently said to total 18, has been little heard of ever since. Questions regarding their exact whereabouts and state of health abound.
Many were reportedly imprisoned at Eiraeiro, in the Northern Red Sea desert province, a notorious prison allegedly holding numerous political prisoners. News of the prison's existence emerged only in 2006, after several political prisoners died there. Conditions at the facility are said to be brutal, with inmates permanently manacled, forbidden from communicating with each other or with guards, and provided with little other than bread and vegetables to eat.
The exact number of those currently imprisoned remains unclear. Occasional individual sightings are reported, and several journalists are rumoured to have died in custody, some long ago.
The first crackdown occurred immediately after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. President Isaias Afwerki's government launched an assault on practically all of the young nation's critical voices, arresting hundreds of government opponents, shutting down every independent media outlet and arresting independent journalists on sight, all in the name of combating terrorism. The arrests were said to be motivated by an effort to eliminate political dissent ahead of elections, which were scheduled for December 2001 but subsequently cancelled without explanation. Approximately eight to 12 journalists were imprisoned and, a few months later, transferred to undisclosed locations after going on hunger strike.
The second wave of arrests took place in November of 2006 and focused on journalists working for the state media, with nine journalists detained, apparently to intimidate state media workers after several colleagues had fled the country. Some were subsequently released, although they were followed and their phones were tapped; they were also forced to return to work and expressly forbidden from leaving the capital, Asmara.
As of late 2008, the following journalists are believed to remain imprisoned, and some are feared dead. Please click here for more information about these journalists.
Dawit Isaac, journalist, co-founder of Setit, Eritrea's first independent newspaper
Fessehaye "Joshua" Yohannes (Johannes), journalist, co-founder of Setit, Eritrea's first independent newspaper
Yusuf (Yosuf) Mohamed Ali, editor-in-chief of Tsigenay (Tsegenay)
Mattewos Habteab, co-founder and editor of Meqaleh
Dawit Habtemichael, co-founder and assistant editor-in-chief of Meqaleh
Medhanie Haile, co-founder and assistant chief editor of Keste Debena
Temesken (Temesgen) Ghebreyesus (Gebreyesus), sports reporter for Keste Debena
Emanuel (Amanuel)(Emmanuel) Asrat, editor of Zemen
Said Abdulkader, editor and founder of Admas
Seyoum Tsehaye, director of Eritrean state television, freelance editor and photographer
Hamid Mohammed Said, news and sports editor, Eritrean state television
Saleh Al Jezaeeri (Al-Jezaeri), reporter for Eritrean state radio, as well as for a government newspaper
Fitzum Wedi Ade, assistant editor with Zemen
Selamyinghes Beyene, reporter for Meqaleh,
Zemenfes Haile, founder and manager of Tsigenay
Ghebrehiwet (Gebrehiwot) Keleta, reporter for Tsigenay
Daniel Mussie, Radio Dimtsi Hafash
Tura Kubaba, Radio Dimtsi Hafash
Information has been sparse, but the little news that emerged was ominous. In February 2007, reports surfaced that Fesshaye "Joshua" Yohannes had succumbed to illness. According to several recent estimates, as many as three other journalists may also have died in custody, possibly as early as 2005 or 2006. They include Said Abdulkader of Admas; Medhanie Haile of Keste Debena; and Yusuf Mohamed Ali of Tsigenay. The others remain in jail, held incommunicado and without charge or access to legal representation.
According to several recent estimates, as many as three other journalists may also have died in custody, possibly as early as 2005 or 2006. They include
Said Abdulkader of Admas;
Medhanie Haile of Keste Debena
Yusuf Mohamed Ali of Tsigenay.
The others remain in jail, held incommunicado and without charge or access to legal representation.
In June 2009, President Afewerki gave an interview to Aftonbladet’s Donald Boström. Asked what crime Dawit Isaac (a half-Swede) committed, he reportedly said: “I don't know. I don't even care where he is or what he is doing. He did a big mistake."
IPI and other press freedom and human rights organisations have repeatedly called on the Eritrean government to release these journalists, and at the very least to specify their whereabouts, ensure their health and permit them access to both family members and legal representatives.
Disappointingly, the international community's response has been fairly muted, particularly in Europe, where once relatively forceful criticism has recently waned. European development officials have made no public mention of the detainees during recent visits to the country. In the meantime, Eritrea's governmental leaders have consistently ignored appeals, instead insisting that the journalists were jailed not for their critical writings, but for "undermining the sovereignty and national security of Eritrea".