CPJ demands government account for “disappeared” journalists

New York, September 16, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists demanded today that Eritrea, the worst jailer of journalists in Africa, account for 15 journalists who have been held, some in secret prisons, since the government crushed private media and independent reporting four years ago this month.

“Holding these journalists incommunicado without due process is a gross violation of human rights,” said Ann Cooper, CPJ Executive Director. “We have not forgotten those brave journalists who continue to languish in Eritrea’s secret jails and our hearts go out to their families at this difficult time.”

The journalists have virtually disappeared since the September 18, 2001 press crackdown and closure of privately owned newspapers. Eritrean officials have refused to provide information on their health, whereabouts, or legal status. Some reports say they may have been tortured. The government’s monopoly of news, and the families’ fear of intimidation, make it extremely difficult to gather information about the detainees.

During the crackdown Eritrean authorities arrested at least ten journalists, accusing them variously of avoiding the military draft, threatening national security, and failing to observe licensing requirements. But CPJ research indicates that the crackdown was motivated by political anxiety ahead of elections which were later cancelled. Africa’s youngest nation, emerging from a bitter war with neighboring Ethiopia, had become one of its most repressive.

“Eritrea is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa which does not allow private media, depriving all its citizens of their basic right to free expression. Its record on press freedom is an outrage,” Cooper said.

Three journalists arrested before the 2001 clampdown remain deprived of their liberty, with two said to be doing extended military service. Two journalists arrested in 2002 also remain in secret jails, according to CPJ research.

The jailed journalists include Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, whom CPJ honored with an International Press Freedom Award in 2002, and Dawit Isaac, who has both Eritrean and Swedish citizenship. Sweden’s repeated requests for his release have so far proved fruitless, and Swedish officials have not been allowed to visit him, according to CPJ sources.

See CPJ’s list of journalists jailed in Eritrea.