Government tightens noose on independent press

December 3, 2001

President Asayas Afewerki
Office of the President
Asmara, Eritrea

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply troubled by your government’s ongoing crackdown on the independent press in Eritrea.

According to our research, all the country’s independent newspapers have now been shut down. Eleven journalists are currently jailed without charges, while the whereabouts of three others are unknown.

On September 18, Eritrean authorities abruptly banned all non-state print media outlets. According to CPJ sources in the capital, Asmara, security forces sealed off the newsrooms of these publications after removing computers, phones, fax machines, and other equipment.

Publications affected by the ban include the weeklies Meqaleh, Setit, Tsiganay, Zemen, Wintana, and Admas.

A few days later, Asmara police began rounding up independent news professionals. By September 25, officers had arrested 11 reporters, most of whom are being held incommunicado at the First Police Station in Asmara. Their bank accounts and other material assets have been frozen or confiscated, while relatives have been denied permission to visit them, CPJ sources say. The jailed journalists include:

  • Medhanie Haile, assistant editor of Keste Debena, arrested at his home on September 18.
  • Yusuf Mohamed Ali, editor-in-chief of Tsigenay, arrested at his office on September 19.
  • Mattewos Habteab, editor-in-chief of Meqaleh, picked up on September 19 having just been released from an earlier detention.
  • Temesken Ghebreyesus, a columnist and member of the editorial board of Keste Debena, who was arrested on September 20.
  • Amanuel Asrat, editor-in-chief of Zemen, picked up by plainclothes security agents during the month of September.
  • Fesshaye Yohannes, publisher and editor-in-chief of Setit, arrested in the early hours of September 27.
  • Aaron Berhane, an editor for Setit and a veteran of Eritrea’s independence war, arrested on September 19 at his office.
  • Said Abdelkader, a writer and editor for Admas and the owner of a private Asmara printing press that mostly served the independent media, picked up by security agents on September 20.

  • Selamyinghes Beyene, a journalist with Meqaleh, detained since September 21.

  • Dawit Habtemichael, an assistant editor with Meqaleh, arrested on or about September 21.
  • Seyoum Fsehaye, a free-lance photographer, independence war veteran, and former director of the state-operated Eritrean television station, arrested on September 21.

At least 10 other local reporters have fled the country, CPJ sources said. The following journalists have been missing since their arrests:

  • Tsigenay reporter Ghebrehiwet Keleta was kidnapped by security agents on his way to work in July 2000 and has not been seen since.
  • Zemenfes Haile, a former editor and co-founder of Tsigenay, has been in government custody for more than two years for allegedly failing to complete the National Service Program (CPJ sources maintain he completed the program in 1994). Until a year ago, Haile was incarcerated in the Zara labor camp in Eritrea’s lowland desert. But friends and relatives have not seen him since he was moved to another location.
  • Fitzum Wedi Ade, an assistant editor with Zemen, was arrested around September 20 and has not been seen since.

Members of Your Excellency’s administration have offered various justifications for this large-scale crackdown on the press. According to Eritrea’s ambassador to the United States, the entire independent print media was suspended because newspapers failed to comply with media licensing requirements under the country’s press laws.

But Ali Abdu, head of the state television network, told the BBC that the newspapers had been suspended in the interest of national unity in the face of mounting tensions with neighboring Ethiopia. Other government officials have stated that the journalists currently in government custody were being held for evading the National Service Program.

Based on all available evidence, we believe that your government’s onslaught against the independent press is designed to suppress public criticism of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice ahead of general elections scheduled for December 2001.

As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues and promoting press freedom around the world, CPJ believes that journalists should never be imprisoned for fulfilling their professional duties. We therefore urge Your Excellency to ensure that all journalists currently jailed for their work in Eritrea are immediately and unconditionally released.

We also call on your government to disclose the whereabouts of Ghebrehiwet Keleta, Zemenfes Haile, and Fitzum Wedi Ale without further delay and to lift the current ban on the independent press.

We thank you for your attention to these extremely urgent matters and await your reply.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director