The door of Africa's biggest prison for the press opened a crack in 2003. Three journalists were freed. But no news filtered out about the conditions in which 14 other journalists are still being held.
Nothing has shifted in Eritrea, still Africa's biggest prison for journalists and one of the last countries in the world without an independent, privately-owned press. Pressure from the international community, including the European Union, proved ineffective. The situation is unique: on 18 September 2001, the government forced all the privately-owned newspapers to close and imprisoned the leading journalists. Since then, the only source of news for Eritreans has been the government press and the few foreign radio stations that can be received.
Recent official statements were not encouraging. Woldai Futer, a presidential economic adviser, said in March 2003 that the ban on the privately-owned press would continue as long as it "affected national security and the nation's development." In August, the information minister described the imprisoned journalists as "traitors" and "spies in the pay of enemy countries." The authorities have still not set a date for any trial or revealed what the detained journalists are charged with.
A journalist missing
Ghebrehiwet Keleta of Tsigenay is missing. No one has had any word of him since 2000. There are reports that he could have been arrested and taken to an undisclosed detention centre.
14 journalists imprisoned
Ten journalists have been imprisoned since September 2001. They are Yusuf Mohamed Ali, the editor of Tsigenay; Mattewos Habteab, the editor of Meqaleh; Dawit Habtemichael, the deputy editor of Meqaleh; Medhanie Haile, the deputy editor of Keste Debena; Temesgen Gebreyesus, a member of the board of directors of Keste Debena; Emanuel Asrat, the editor of Zemen; Dawit Isaac and Fessehaye Yohannes of the newspaper Setit; Said Abdulkader, the editor in chief of Admas; and freelance photographer Seyoum Tsehaye.
The government ordered the closure of all the private-owned newspapers on 18 September 2001. At the same time, the authorities launched an unprecedented wave of arrests of Eritrean journalists. These ten journalists were detained in the course of the next few days and taken to Asmara's main police station. After staging a hunger strike, they were transferred to undisclosed detention centres in April 2002. Their families are not allowed to visit them.
Three journalists working for government news media were arrested in January and February 2002 without any official explanation: Hamid Mohamed Said and Saidia Ahmed of Eri-TV and Saleh Al Jezaeeri of the Voice of the Broad Masses radio station.
Akhlilu Solomon, 32, a local stringer for the Voice of America (VOA), was arrested at his home on 8 July 2003. Officials later said he was taken to a military camp to do his obligatory national service. But the VOA said he had already completed part of his national service and had been exempted from the rest on medical grounds. Ten days before his arrest, the authorities withdrew his press accreditation for reporting about the grief of families of soldiers killed in the 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The government press had reported that these families were proud and happy that their loved-ones had died "for the fatherland."
Three journalists released
Zemenfes Haile, co-founder of Tsigenay, Binyam Haile of Haddas Eritrea and Simret Seyoum, the managing editor of Setit, were set free in 2003. The latter two had been arrested after the crackdown on the independent press in September 2001, while Zemenfes Haile had been held for a longer period.