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Annual Prison Census 2013 - Eritrea

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date 18 December 2013
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Annual Prison Census 2013 - Eritrea, 18 December 2013, available at: [accessed 19 February 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, 2013

Eritrea: 22

Ghebrehiwet Keleta, Tsigenay
Imprisoned: July 2000

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

CPJ listed Ghebrehiwet on its annual prison list until 2010, when exiled journalists told the organization that Ghebrehiwet may have been released.

But in 2013, one of Ghebrehiwet's children, who had recently fled Eritrea, said Ghebrehiwet was still in government custody, according to another exiled journalist who spoke to CPJ.

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

Eritrean authorities have never accounted for the whereabouts, health, or legal status of several newspaper editors who were arrested after the government summarily banned the private press on September 18, 2001, in response to growing criticism of President Isaias Afewerki. CPJ has confirmed that at least one of the journalists has died in secret detention, and is investigating unconfirmed reports that others have also perished in custody.

The journalists' papers had reported on divisions between reformers and conservatives within the ruling Party for Democracy and Justice and advocated for full implementation of the country's democratic constitution. A dozen top reformist officials, whose pro-democracy statements had been relayed by the independent newspapers, were also arrested.

Authorities initially detained 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. Several CPJ sources said the journalists were confined at the Eiraeiro prison camp or at a military prison, Adi Abeito, based in Asmara.

Over the years, Eritrean officials have offered vague and inconsistent explanations for the arrests-accusing the journalists of involvement in anti-state conspiracies in connection with foreign intelligence, of skirting military service, and of violating press regulations. Officials, at times, 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 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 successive reports that several of the remaining detainees may have died in custody. In August 2012, the international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, citing a purported 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 purported former Eritrean prison guard as saying that Mattewos had died at Eiraeiro.

In August 2006, an unbylined report on the Ethiopian pro-government website Aigaforum quoted 14 purported former Eiraeiro guards as reporting 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 published purported death certificates of Fesshaye, Yusuf, Medhanie, and Said.

CPJ continues to list the journalists on the 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

Dawit, co-founder of the newspaper Setit, was one of 10 prominent journalists imprisoned in the September 2001 government crackdown on the independent press. He has been held incommunicado and without charge since his arrest, except for brief contact with his family in 2005.

When asked about Dawit's crime in a May 2009 interview with Swedish freelance journalist Donald Boström, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki said, "I don't know," before asserting that 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."

Dawit, who has dual Eritrean and Swedish citizenship, has drawn considerable international attention, particularly in Sweden, where members of his family, including his brother, Esayas, live.

In September 2011, on the 10th anniversary of Dawit's imprisonment, 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 relevant top Eritrean officials.

In a January 2013 interview with a Swedish newspaper, former information minister and government spokesman Ali Abdu pleaded ignorance of Dawit's fate.

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

Hamid, a reporter for the Arabic-language service of the government-controlled national broadcaster Eri-TV, was arrested without charge in connection with the government's crackdown on the 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 Hamid'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 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.

Basilos Zemo, Radio Bana
Bereket Misguina, Radio Bana
Ghirmai Abraham, Radio Bana
Meles Nguse, Radio Bana
Petros Teferi, Radio Bana
Yirgalem Fesseha, 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 6 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.

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 Meles 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, Bereket (also a film director and scriptwriter), Meles (also a poet), and Yirgalem (a poet as well) were columnists for Hadas Eritrea. Basilos was the head of Radio Bana, and Petros a reporter for the station. CPJ learned from an exiled journalist in 2013 of their detention with the others in 2009.

CPJ sources confirmed that at least eight of the journalists arrested in February 2009 were released on April 2013: Ismail Abdelkader, Mohammed Dafla, Araya Defoch, Simon Elias, Biniam Ghirmay, Mulubruhan Habtegebriel, Mohammed Said Mohammed, and Issak Abraham.

Sources told CPJ that the mental health of at least two of the detainees, Yirgalem and Meles, had seriously deteriorated in detention.

Sitaneyesus Tsigeyohannes, Eritrea Profile
Imprisoned: August 2009

Two men believed to be government agents took Sitaneyesus into custody at the offices of the English-language state weekly Eritrea 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.

Ahmed Usman, Dimtsi Hafash
Eyob Kessete, Dimtsi Hafash
Mohamed Osman, Dimtsi Hafash
Nebiel Edris, 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 services 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.

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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