Nine journalists arrested; two others flee as crackdown continues

New York, September 25, 2001—Eritrean security forces have arrested at least nine journalists over the last few days, sources in the capital, Asmara, told CPJ.

The arrests came less than a week after authorities abruptly closed all privately owned newspapers, allegedly to safeguard national unity in the face of growing political turmoil in the tiny Horn of Africa nation.
International news reports quote presidential adviser Yemane Gebremeskel as saying that the journalists may have been arrested for avoiding military service.

Sources in Asmara, however, say that at least two of the detained journalists, freelance photographer Seyoum Fsehaye and Yusuf Mohamed, the editor of Tsigenay, were legally exempt from national service. Seyoum is reportedly exempt since he is an independence war veteran, while Mohamed is apparently well over the maximum age for national service.

The remaining seven include: Medhane Haile (Keste Debena), Dawit Habtemichael (Meqaleh), Amanuel Asrat (Zemen), Aaron Berhane (Setit), Selayinghes Beyene (Meqaleh), Fitzum Wedi Ade (Zemen), and Mattewos Habteab (Meqaleh).

More Eritrean journalists, many of them independence war veterans, expect to be taken into custody soon. They are now making last-minute financial arrangements for their families, according to the BBC.

Meanwhile, two Eritrean journalists have fled the country. Milkias Mehretab and Semere Teazaz, editor-in-chief and reporter for Keste Debena, respectively, are now in Sudan. The two fugitives recently contacted CPJ to express serious concerns about their safety. They fear that Eritrean secret service operatives may be active in Sudan.

Keste Debena is among eight privately owned newspapers that government authorities shut down last week. Others include Meqaleh, Setit, Tiganay, Zemen, Wintana, and Admas, and Mana. It is still unclear what prompted the decision to suspend the entire private press, a move that surprised both Eritrean and foreign observers.

CPJ sources in Asmara maintain that the suspension and subsequent arrests of independent journalists are part of a full-scale government effort to suppress political dissent in advance of elections scheduled for December.

In the early hours of September 18, authorities rounded up six former high-ranking members of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, including army generals and ex-ministers. According to The Associated Press, all six were among 15 dissidents who signed a May open letter that described President Isayas Afeworki’s rule as undemocratic.

The government-owned daily newspaper, Hadas Eritrea, is now the only publication allowed in Eritrea.