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Annual Prison Census 2012 - Eritrea

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date 11 December 2012
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Annual Prison Census 2012 - Eritrea, 11 December 2012, available at: [accessed 23 January 2018]
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, 2012

Eritrea: 28

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

More than 10 years after imprisoning several editors of Eritrea's once-vibrant independent press and 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 anti-state conspiracies involving foreign intelligence to accusations of skirting military service to 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. Several CPJ sources said the journalists were confined at the Eiraeiro prison camp or at a military prison, Adi Abeito, based in Asmara.

In February 2007, CPJ established that one detainee, Fesshaye "Joshua" Yohannes, a co-founder of the newspaper Setit and a 2002 recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award, had died in custody at the age of 47.

CPJ is seeking corroboration of reports that several other detainees may have died in custody. In August 2012, the international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, citing a former prison guard, said Dawit Habtemichael and Mattewos Habteab had died at Eiraeiro in recent years. In 2010, the Ethiopian government-sponsored Radio Wegahta also cited a former Eritrean prison guard as saying that Habteab had died at Eiraeiro.

An unbylined report on the Ethiopian pro-government website Aigaforum in August 2006 quoted 14 purported Eiraeiro guards 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 Fesshaye, Yusuf, Medhanie, and Said.

CPJ lists the journalists on the 2012 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.

Dawit Isaac, Setit
Imprisoned: September 23, 2001

The imprisonment of Dawit, co-founder of the banned newspaper Setit, has drawn international attention. Dawit, who has dual Eritrean and Swedish citizenship, has been held incommunicado and without charge since 2001, except for brief contact with his family in 2005.

A government crackdown on the independent press in 2001 led to the imprisonment without charge of numerous prominent journalists. Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki's administration has refused to account for the whereabouts, legal status, or health of the jailed journalists. When asked about Dawit's crime in a May 2009 interview with Swedish freelance journalist Donald Boström, Afewerki declared, "I don't know," but said the journalist had made "a big mistake," without offering details. In August 2010, Yemane Gebreab, a senior presidential adviser, said in an interview with Swedish daily Aftonbladet that Dawit was being held for "very serious crimes regarding Eritrea's national security and survival as an independent state."

In July 2011, Dawit'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 called for information on Dawit's whereabouts and a review of his detention. In March 2012, the Supreme Court of Eritrea confirmed that it had received the petition.

In September 2011, the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing "fears for the life" of Dawit, calling for his release and urging the European Council to consider targeted sanctions against Eritrean officials.

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

Hamid, a reporter for the Arabic-language service of the government-controlled broadcaster Eri-TV was arrested without charge in connection with the government's crackdown on the independent press, which began in September 2001, according to CPJ sources.

In a July 2002 fact-finding mission to Asmara, the capital, a CPJ delegation learned from local sources that Hamid was among three state media reporters arrested. Two of the journalists, Saadia Ahmed and Saleh Aljezeeri, were later released, but Hamid was being held in an undisclosed location, CPJ was told.

The government has refused to respond to numerous inquiries from CPJ and other international organizations seeking information about Said's whereabouts, health, and legal status.

While the government's motivation in imprisoning journalists is unknown in most cases, CPJ research has found that state media journalists work in a climate of intimidation, retaliation, and absolute control. 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.

Ismail Abdelkader, 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

Security forces raided government-controlled Radio Bana in February 2009 and arrested its entire staff, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks in November 2010.

The cable, sent by then-U.S. Ambassador Ronald McMullen and dated February 23, 2009, attributed 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 the capital and later being separated from them. The volunteer was not interrogated and was released the next day. According to the cable, some of the station's staff members were released as well.

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

Several of the detainees had worked for other state media outlets before beginning stints at Radio Bana, a station sponsored by the Education Ministry. Ghirmai was the producer of an arts program with government-controlled state radio Dimtsi Hafash, and Issak had produced a Sunday entertainment show on the same station. Issak and Mulubruhan, a reporter with state daily Hadas Eritrea, had also co-authored a book of comedy. Bereket (also a film director and scriptwriter), Meles (also a poet), and Yirgalem(a poet as well) were columnists for Hadas Eritrea. CPJ had identified one of the detainees as Esmail Abd-el-Kader in a previous survey. Further research indicated his name is more commonly spelled Ismail Abdelkader.

Authorities have not responded to numerous inquiries from CPJ and other international groups seeking information about the detainees' whereabouts, health, and legal status.

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

Authorities arrested Habtemariam , a veteran cameraman and head of the English desk at the government-controlled broadcaster Eri-TV, according to CPJ sources. No reason was given for the arrest and no formal charges were publicly disclosed.

Authorities have not responded to numerous inquiries from CPJ seeking information about Habtemariam's whereabouts, health, and legal status. While the government's motivation in imprisoning journalists is unknown in most cases, CPJ research has found that state media journalists work in a climate of intimidation, retaliation, and absolute control. 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.

Sitaneyesus Tsigeyohannes, Eritrean Profile
Imprisoned: August 2009

Two men believed to be government agents took Sitaneyesus into custody at the offices of the government-controlled English-language weekly Eritrean Profile, two CPJ sources said.

The agents said Sitaneyesus, a staff reporter for the paper, was being brought in for questioning, but the journalist had not been seen since, according to the CPJ sources. Sitaneyesus was also active in the Pentecostal Church, which is banned in Eritrea.

Nebiel Edris, Dimtsi Hafash
Eyob Kessete, Dimtsi Hafash
Mohamed Osman, Dimtsi Hafash
Ahmed Usman, Dimtsi Hafash
Imprisoned: February and March 2011

Several journalists working for the government-controlled radio station were arrested in early 2011, according to CPJ sources. Authorities did not disclose the basis of the arrests, although CPJ sources said at least one of the journalists, Eyob, was arrested on allegations that he had helped others flee the country.

The four reporters worked for different arms of Dimtsi Hafash: Nebiel for the Arabic-language service; Ahmed for the Tigrayan-language service, Mohamed for the Bilen-language service, and Eyob for the Amharic-language service.

Tesfalident Mebrahtu, a prominent sports journalist with Dimtsi Hafash and Eri-TV, was arrested at the same time on allegations that he was attempting to flee the country. CPJ sources said he had recently been freed and allowed to resume work.

While the government's motivation in imprisoning journalists is unknown in most cases, CPJ research has found that state media journalists work in a climate of intimidation, retaliation, and absolute control. 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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