New York, August 2, 2002—During a recent fact-finding mission to Eritrea, a presidential official told a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that eight independent journalists are currently imprisoned and held incommunicado.
Although the official, presidential spokesperson Yermane Gebremesken, cited eight journalists, CPJ puts the total number of journalists jailed in Eritrea at 13.
The government acknowledgement comes more than 10 months after the authoritarian regime of President Isaias Afeworki shut down the tiny nation’s private press and rounded up independent journalists in a sweeping crackdown on dissent.
In a July 18 meeting in his office, the presidential spokesperson told the CPJ delegates that “about eight” news professionals were being held in detention facilities, whose whereabouts he refused to disclose.
According to CPJ sources, a total of 13 journalists are currently held. Ten were arrested in September, 2001, and three were detained in February. Until March 31, all 13 journalists were confined in dingy cells at Police Station One in the capital, Asmara. At that time, they began a hunger strike to protest their imprisonment. Security forces then transferred nine of the hunger strikers to undisclosed detention facilities, and their families have since been denied any contact with them.
CPJ’s sources have reported that one of the hunger strikers, Swedish national Dawit Isaac, was sent to a hospital where he was treated for posttraumatic stress, a result of alleged torture while in police custody.
Yermane, the presidential spokesperson, would not guarantee whether all of the detained journalists were alive. Nor would he comment on their condition, beyond stating that they were not being mistreated.
“We arrived in Asmara during a new wave of military roundups of young men and women for national service, and based on what we witnessed, it is hard to believe that the jailed journalists are being treated any more decently than others,” said Josh Friedman, a CPJ board member, who, along with CPJ’s Washington, D.C., representative Frank Smyth and CPJ Africa program coordinator Yves Sorokobi, was part of the mission.
The delegation visited Eritrea from July 16 to July 21 and held meetings with local and foreign officials, as well as with members of Asmara’s tiny foreign press corps.
At the July 18 meeting, Yermane defended the journalists’ continued imprisonment by citing national security concerns. He also accused the private press of purchasing publication licenses with funds from foreign governments hostile to Eritrea.
The presidential spokesperson claimed that government security agencies had collected enough evidence to support the accusations but declined to make any information available to the CPJ delegation. Yermane also reiterated an earlier official statement that Parliament had created a special commission to draft a new media policy and revise Eritrea’s current press law with the aim of curbing foreign funding of the press.
“There should be limits to what can be said about government officials,” Yermane asserted, in defending the government’s actions.
“At a time when Eritreans need all the information they can get to build their young nation, it is unfortunate that the authorities remain determined to control what can be said,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We oppose any government attempts to set standards for the press, and we call on President Afeworki to ensure that the jailed reporters are released immediately.”
The jailed reporters are:
Yosef Mohamed Ali, chief editor of Tsigenay
Seyoum Tsehaye, freelance editor and photographer and the former director of Eritrean state television
Temesgen Gebreyesus, reporter for Keste Debena
Mattewos Habteab, editor of Meqaleh
Dawit Habtemichael, assistant chief editor, Meqaleh
Medhanie Haile, assistant chief editor, Keste Debena
Fessahaye Yohannes, editor-in-chief of Setit
Said Abdulkadir, chief editor of Admas
Amanuel Asrat, chief editor of Zemen
Dawit Isaac, contributor to Setit
Hamid Mohammed Said, Eritrean state television (ETV)
Saleh Aljezeeri, Eritrean state radio
Saadia (full name unknown) a female journalist with the Arabic-language service of ETV.