Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 August 2014, 14:37 GMT

Annual Prison Census 2011 - Eritrea

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date 8 December 2011
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Annual Prison Census 2011 - Eritrea, 8 December 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4f0420aec.html [accessed 21 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Journalists in prison as of December 1, 2011

Eritrea: 28

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

More than 10 years after imprisoning leading editors of Eritrea's once-vibrant independent press and permanently banning their publications to silence growing criticism of President Isaias Afewerki, Eritrean authorities had yet to account for the whereabouts, health, or legal status of the journalists, some of whom may have died in secret detention.

The journalists were arrested without charge after the government suddenly announced on September 18, 2001, that it was closing the country's independent newspapers. The papers had reported on divisions within the ruling Party for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and advocated for full implementation of the country's constitution. A dozen top officials and PFDJ reformers, whose pro-democracy statements had been covered by the independent newspapers, were also arrested.

Authorities initially held the journalists at a police station in the capital, 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 without ever bringing them before a court or publicly registering charges.

Over the years, Eritrean officials have offered vague and inconsistent explanations for the arrests – from nebulous antistate conspiracies involving foreign intelligence to accusations of skirting military service or violating press regulations. Officials at times have even denied that the journalists existed. Meanwhile, shreds of often unverifiable, second- or third-hand information smuggled out of the country by people fleeing into exile have suggested the deaths of as many as five journalists in custody.

In February 2007, CPJ established that one detainee, Fesshaye "Joshua" Yohannes, a co-founder of Setit and a 2002 recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award, had died in custody at the age of 47. Addressing reports of Yohannes' death in an interview with the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America, Eritrean presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel declared: "In the first place, I don't know the person you're talking about."

CPJ is seeking corroboration of three reports suggesting the deaths of up to four other detained journalists. An unbylined report on the Ethiopian pro-government website Aigaforum in August 2006 quoted 14 purported guards from Eiraeiro prison as citing the deaths of prisoners whose names closely resembled Yusuf Mohamed Ali, Medhanie Haile, and Said Abdelkader. The details could not be independently confirmed, although CPJ sources considered it to be generally credible. In 2009, the London-based Eritrean opposition news site Assena posted purportedly leaked death certificates of Yohannes, Ali, Haile, and Abdelkader. CPJ could not verify the authenticity of the documents. In 2010, Eritrean defector Eyob Habtemariam, who claimed to have been a prison guard, told the Ethiopian government-sponsored Radio Wegahta that Habteab had died along with the four others.

CPJ continues to seek confirmation of the reported deaths. It lists the journalists on the 2011 prison census as a means of holding the government accountable for their fates. Relatives of the journalists also told CPJ that they maintain hope their loved ones are still alive.

Several CPJ sources say most of the journalists were being held in a secret prison camp called Eiraeiro, near the village of Gahtelay, and in a military prison, Adi Abeito, based in the capital, Asmara. Eritrean government officials in Asmara referred CPJ's inquiries to the Eritrean Embassy in Washington. The embassy did not respond to CPJ's requests for information.

Dawit Isaac, Setit
Imprisoned: September 23, 2001

Eritrea's imprisonment of Isaac, a co-founder of Setit with dual Eritrean and Swedish citizenship, has drawn considerable international attention, particularly in 2011 on the 10th anniversary of his arrest.

Isaac has been held incommunicado except for brief contact with his family in 2005. Asked about Isaac's crime in a May 2009 interview with Swedish freelance journalist Donald Boström, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki declared, "I don't know," but said the journalist had made "a big mistake," without elaborating. In April 2010, Eyob Bahta Habtemariam, an Eritrean defector who claimed to have been a guard at two prisons northeast of Asmara, said Isaac was in poor health, according to media reports. In August 2010, Yemane Gebreab, a senior presidential adviser, declared in an interview with Swedish daily Aftonbladet that Isaac was held for "very serious crimes regarding Eritrea's national security and survival as an independent state."

In July 2011, Isaac's brother Esayas and three jurists – Jesús Alcalá, Prisca Orsonneau, and Percy Bratt – filed a writ of habeas corpus with Eritrea's Supreme Court. The writ calls for information on the journalist's whereabouts and a review of his detention.

On September 16 in Strasbourg, the European Parliament signaled a break from quiet diplomacy to secure Isaac's release to public confrontation when it passed a strongly worded resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Isaac and other prisoners of conscience "who have been jailed simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

On the day marking the 10th anniversary of Isaac's imprisonment, Nobel Prize laureates Mario Vargas Llosa and Herta Müller, as well as John Ralston Saul, president of PEN International, signed a statement calling on Sweden and the European Union to take a tougher approach toward Eritrea to secure Isaac's release. In October, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers awarded Isaac its 50th anniversary Golden Pen of Freedom.

Hamid Mohammed Said, Eri-TV
Imprisoned: February 15, 2002

During a July 2002 fact-finding mission to the capital, Asmara, a CPJ delegation confirmed that Eritrean authorities had arrested three state media reporters in February 2002 as part of the government's mass crackdown on the press, which began in September 2001. Reporters Saadia Ahmed and Saleh Aljezeeri were released, according to CPJ sources.

Sources told CPJ they believed Eri-TV reporter Said was still being held in an undisclosed location. The government has refused to respond to numerous inquiries from CPJ and other international organizations seeking information about the journalist's whereabouts, health, and legal status.

Esmail Abd-el-Kader, Radio Bana
Ghirmai Abraham, Radio Bana
Issak Abraham, Radio Bana
Mohammed Dafla, Radio Bana
Araya Defoch, Radio Bana
Simon Elias, Radio Bana
Yirgalem Fesseha, Radio Bana
Biniam Ghirmay, Radio Bana
Mulubruhan Habtegebriel, Radio Bana
Bereket Misguina, Radio Bana
Mohammed Said Mohammed, Radio Bana
Meles Nguse, Radio Bana
Imprisoned: February 19, 2009

A U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks in November 2010 identified February 19, 2009, as the date Eritrean security forces raided the Education Ministry-sponsored station Radio Bana and arrested its entire staff.

The cable, by then-U.S. Ambassador Ronald McMullen and dated February 23, 2009, attributes the information to the deputy head of mission of the British Embassy in Asmara in connection with the detention of a British national who volunteered at the station. According to the cable, the volunteer reported being taken by security forces with the Radio Bana staff to an unknown location six miles (10 kilometers) north of Asmara and later separated from them. The volunteer was not interrogated and was released the next day. According to the cable, some staff members were released as well.

At least 12 journalists working for Radio Bana have been held incommunicado since, according to several CPJ sources. The reasons for the detentions are unclear, but CPJ sources say the journalists were either accused of providing technical assistance to two opposition radio stations broadcasting into the country from Ethiopia, or of taking part in a meeting in which detained journalist Meles Nguse spoke against the government. Their close collaboration with two British nationals on the production of educational programs may have also led to their arrests, according to the same sources.

Ghirmai Abraham had been producer of an arts program with government-controlled state radio Dimtsi Hafash and Issak Abraham had produced a Sunday entertainment show on the same station. Isaak Abraham and Habtegebriel, a reporter with state daily Hadas Eritrea, had co-authored a book of comedy. Misguina (also a film director and scriptwriter), Nguse (also a poet), and Fesseha (a poet as well) were columnists for Hadas Eritrea.

In 2011, based on new information obtained from recently escaped journalists, CPJ identified at least six imprisoned Radio Bana journalists that were previously not listed in the organization's annual census. They are Mohammed, deputy director of the station, presenters Abd-el-Kader and Defoch, and producers Ghirmay, Elias, and Dafla.

None of the detainees' whereabouts, health, or legal status had been disclosed by late year.

Habtemariam Negassi, Eri-TV
Imprisoned: January or February 2009

Negassi, a veteran cameraman and head of the English desk at the government-controlled broadcaster Eri-TV, was arrested around the same time as journalists from Radio Bana, according to CPJ sources. The reason for the arrest was unknown; no charges were publicly filed.

Eritrean authorities typically refuse to disclose even the most basic information about detainees, but CPJ continues to gather details from journalists who recently escaped the country. While the government's motivation in imprisoning journalists is unknown in most cases, CPJ's research has found that state media journalists work in a climate of intimidation, retaliation, and absolute control.

The Information Ministry employs some 100 journalists, many of them conscripts of the country's mandatory national service, and hundreds of support staff, according to journalists in exile. Over the years, CPJ has documented a broad pattern in which Information Minister Ali Abdu has arbitrarily imprisoned journalists he suspects of being sources for diaspora news websites or of attempting to leave the country to escape the oppressive conditions. In this context of extreme repression, CPJ considers journalists attempting to escape the country or in contact with third parties abroad as struggling for press freedom.

Nebiel Edris, Dimtsi Hafash
Eyob Kessete, Dimtsi Hafash
Tesfalidet Mebrahtu, Dimtsi Hafash, Eri-TV
Mohamed Osman, Dimtsi Hafash
Ahmed Usman, Dimtsi Hafash
Imprisoned: February and March 2011

The government did not disclose why it arrested Kessete, a reporter for the Amharic-language service of government-controlled radio Dimtsi Hafash, but CPJ sources believe he was suspected of helping people escape the country.

Authorities had previously detained Kessete in early 2009 after he attempted to flee Eritrea himself. His family acted as his guarantor at that time, and he was released. His private website and email were searched by the government during the 2009 arrest, according to CPJ sources. His current location is unknown.

Authorities arrested Edris of the Arabic service of government-controlled Dimtsi Hafash, Usman of the Tigre service, and Osman of the Bilen-language service in February, according to CPJ sources. The reasons for the arrests were not disclosed.

Authorities imprisoned Mebrahtu, a prominent sports journalist with state-run radio Dimtsi Hafash and television Eri-TV, on suspicion of attempting to flee the country, according to CPJ sources. Mebrahtu is reportedly detained in either Mai Serwa or Adi Abeto prison.

While it is very difficult to obtain details from Eritrea, CPJ continues to gather information on the imprisoned from journalists who have recently escaped the country. The government's motivation in imprisoning journalists is unknown in most cases, but CPJ's research has found an environment in which state media journalists are under the absolute control of Information Minister Ali Abdu.

The ministry employs some 100 journalists, many of them conscripts under the country's mandatory national service, and hundreds of support staff, according to journalists in exile. Former state media journalists told CPJ they worked under the close scrutiny and direction of Abdu and his censors, with no editorial freedom. "You're given directives as to how you write. We had to inform Ali Abdu each time we want to interview someone, and we cannot proceed until he approves," said one former senior journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to protect relatives still in Eritrea.

Over the years, CPJ has documented a broad pattern of intimidation in which Abdu has arbitrarily imprisoned journalists he suspects of being sources for opposition diaspora news websites or of attempting to leave the country to escape the oppressive conditions. For example, television presenter Paulos Kidane was among several journalists imprisoned in 2006 on suspicion of communicating with opposition websites abroad; he later died while attempting to flee the country. In this context of extreme repression, CPJ considers journalists attempting to escape the country or in contact with third parties abroad as struggling for press freedom.

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