In Eritrea, a prominent journalist dies in a secret government prison

New York, February 9, 2007— The Committee to Protect Journalists deplores the reported death of prominent, award-winning journalist Fesshaye Yohannes, imprisoned without charges in September 2001, along with the majority of Eritrea’s independent press corps.

Yohannes, founding editor of the defunct weekly Setit and a recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2002, died in a prison outside the capital Asmara, several sources have told CPJ. Repeated attempts by CPJ to reach Eritrean government officials in Asmara were unsuccessful. Officials at the Eritrean embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return messages seeking comment, but Voice of America quoted Eritrean presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel as denying the reports. “In the first place, I don’t know the person you’re talking about,” he said.

“Reports that our colleague Joshua Yohannes has died in government custody fill us with sadness and anger: sadness because Eritrea may have lost a brave journalist and anger because government officials who may be responsible for his death are denying that they ever heard of him,” said Joel Simon, CPJ Executive Director.

While some reports allege that Yohannes died on January 11 after a long illness in unknown prison conditions, a separate report alleges that the journalist died nearly four years ago in a prison in Embatkala, 21 miles (35 km) northeast of Asmara. Yohannes was allegedly found dead in his cell on December 13, 2002, exiled opposition party leader Adhanom Gebremariam told CPJ. Gebremariam, who was one of 15 ruling party officials accused of treason after writing a June 2001 public letter urging President Issayas Afewerki to democratize his regime, said he received this information from sources he still has in Eritrea.

Fesshaye went by the name of “Joshua” among family and friends. Formerly a member of the guerrilla movement fighting for Eritrean independence from neighboring Ethiopia, he turned to journalism when Eritrea became a state in the early 1990s. He became a popular writer and Setit grew into the nation’s largest-circulation newspaper.

Setit’s editor and staff tackled tough issues in the young nation including poverty, prostitution, and Eritrea’s lack of infrastructure for handicapped veterans of the 30-year independence struggle. The weekly’s criticism angered the government, and by May 2001, Fesshaye asked CPJ to help him create a journalists’ union to improve press freedom conditions.

But Fesshaye and other journalists never got the chance. The government led by President Isaias Afwerki launched a crackdown on all opposition voices including the press in September 2001 just one week after 9/11. Under the pretext of combating terrorism, the government shut down every independent media outlet and arrested independent journalists on sight. Fesshaye refused to abandon his colleagues by going into hiding, sources told CPJ, and he eventually surrendered to the authorities.

He was 47-years-old when he went to a jail where he and other imprisoned journalists still had contact with the outside world. In May 2002, Fesshaye and nine other colleagues staged a hunger strike in hopes of spurring their release. Instead, government officials transferred the journalists to an undisclosed location.

At least 14 other journalists remain held incommunicado in secret jails, according to CPJ statistics. Another eight journalists, all working for state media, were detained for at least a few weeks in November 2006, but an unknown number were released according to CPJ research. One of the journalists arrested, Ahmed Bhaja, was captured at the Ethiopian border while attempting to flee the country, according to CPJ sources. A CPJ study named Eritrea, the only country in sub-Saharan Africa without a single private media outlet, as one of the ten most censored countries in the world.