Annual Prison Census 2009: Eritrea

Journalists in prison as of December 1, 2009

Eritrea: 19

freedomZemenfes Haile, Tsigenay
Imprisoned: January 1999

The founder and manager of the now-defunct private weekly Tsigenay, Haile was arrested on charges of failing to complete his national service. He was last seen by friends and relatives in the Zara labor camp in Eritrea’s lowland desert in 2000.

CPJ sources said Haile was released from prison in 2002 but was assigned to extended military service. His continued deprivation of liberty was part of the government’s crackdown on the press, which began in September 2001.

Ghebrehiwet Keleta, Tsigenay
Imprisoned: July 2000

Security agents arrested Keleta, a reporter for the private weekly Tsigenay, while he was on his way to work in July 2000. He has not been heard from since. Sources told CPJ at the time that the reporter was being held in connection with the government’s overall crackdown on the press.

Said Abdelkader, Admas
Yusuf Mohamed Ali, Tsigenay
Amanuel Asrat, Zemen
Temesken Ghebreyesus, Keste Debena
Mattewos Habteab, Meqaleh
Dawit Habtemichael, Meqaleh
Medhanie Haile, Keste Debena
Dawit Isaac, Setit
Seyoum Tsehaye, freelance
Imprisoned: September 2001

Eritrean security forces jailed at least 10 local journalists without trial in the days following September 18, 2001. The arrests took place less than a week after authorities effectively shut down the country’s fledgling private press.

Authorities accused the journalists of avoiding the country’s compulsory military service, threatening national security, and failing to observe licensing requirements. CPJ research indicates that the crackdown was part of a government drive to crush political dissent ahead of elections scheduled for December 2001, which were subsequently canceled. The private press had reported on divisions within the ruling party, the Eritrean People’s Defense Force, and had criticized the increasingly authoritarian nature of President Isaias Afwerki’s regime.

The journalists were initially held incommunicado at a police station in Asmara, where they began a hunger strike on March 31, 2002, and smuggled a message out of jail demanding due process. The government responded by transferring them to secret locations and has since refused to divulge their health, whereabouts, or legal status. Several CPJ sources said that most of the journalists were being held in a secret prison camp called Eiraeiro, near the village of Gahtelay.

Among the group of 10 journalists initially arrested, CPJ has confirmed one death. Several CPJ sources said publisher and editor Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, 47, died in a prison outside Asmara on January 11, 2007, after a long illness. Yohannes had received CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2002.

In at least three other cases, it was not clear whether the journalists were still alive. Unconfirmed online reports said that Yusuf Mohamed Ali, Medhanie Haile, and Said Abdelkader had died in prison. CPJ continues to investigate the status of the three journalists. It lists them on the 2009 prison census as a means of holding the government responsible for their fates.

The government has ignored numerous inquiries from CPJ and other organizations seeking information about the health, whereabouts, or legal status of all of the imprisoned journalists. In the rare cases that the government has responded, its spokesmen have offered alarming blanket denials about the imprisonments. In a 2006 interview with CPJ, presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel denied that the journalists were imprisoned because of what they had written, saying only that they “were involved in acts against the national interest of the state.”

In November 2009, a government spokesman went a step further, denying entirely that journalists were being held by the government. “I am not aware of any imprisoned journalists in our country,” asserted Emmanuel Hadgo, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information.

The case of Setit co-owner Isaac, an Eritrean with Swedish citizenship, has drawn considerable attention in Sweden, where diplomats, journalists, and grassroots activists campaigned for his release. Isaac was briefly released for a medical checkup on November 19, 2005, and allowed to phone his family and a friend in Sweden. Despite hopes that he would be freed, he was returned to jail two days later with no explanation, according to his colleagues and relatives. In March 2007, Sweden’s National Press Club awarded him its Freedom of Expression and Press Prize.

Saleh Aljezeeri, Eritrean State Radio
Hamid Mohammed Said, Eri-TV
Imprisoned: February 15, 2002

During a July 2002 fact-finding mission to the capital, Asmara, CPJ delegates confirmed that Eritrean authorities had arrested three state reporters in February 2002 as part of the government’s mass crackdown on the press, which began in September 2001.

A reporter with the network’s Arabic-language service, Saadia Ahmed, was eventually released in early 2005, according to CPJ sources. Eri-TV reporter Said and Eritrean State Radio reporter Aljezeeri remained imprisoned in an undisclosed location, according to local journalists.

Bereket Misguina, Radio Bana
Mulubruhan Weldegebriel, Radio Bana
Ghirmai Abraham, Radio Bana
Issak Abraham, Radio Bana
Meles Nguse, Radio Bana
Yirgalem Fesseha, Radio Bana
Imprisoned: January and February 2009

Eritrean security forces arrested six government journalists as part of a crackdown on staffers connected to Radio Bana, an Education Ministry-sponsored station in Asmara, according to several CPJ sources. Authorities ordered the arrests based on suspicions that the journalists and other staffers had provided information to foreign-based Eritrean opposition organizations and news Web sites, according to the sources.
The journalists were being held in Mai Srwa and Adi Abieto military camps. Other non-journalist staffers were also being held in late year.

The journalists had worked for other state media. Ghirmai Abraham had been producer of an arts program, and Issak Abraham had produced a Sunday entertainment show on state Radio Dimtsi Hafash. Misguina (also a film director and scriptwriter), Nguse (also a poet), and Fesseha (a poet as well) were columnists for the state-run daily Hadas Eritrea. Weldegebriel was the author of a column on celebrities for Hadas Eritrea.

Topics: Imprisonment, Freedom of expression,

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

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