This week, as CPJ finalized its annual list of journalists imprisoned for their work, my thoughts turned to Eritrea and this photo. Taken in 2000, near the end of a two-year border war with neighboring Ethiopia and during the heyday of a burgeoning private press movement in Africa’s youngest nation, the photo shows the staff of Setit newspaper.
To me, the photo exudes the excitement and camaraderie of those engaging in a vital, nascent enterprise during an era of change and promise. If I didn’t know better I would say the staff of Setit are right now ready to print their next twice-weekly edition.
But I do know better. I know that no edition of Setit has been seen since September 18, 2001; and I know that one person in this photo, Fesshaye Yohannes (back, fourth from left), was arrested and is reported to have died in secret government custody–some say the result of untreated torture wounds; another, Semret Seyoum (second from right), was, a few months later, caught near the Sudanese border while attempting to flee the country. He spent nearly one year in prison, shackled in solitary confinement for most of it. And I know Seyoum and two others in this photo–Aaron Berhane (seated) and Tedros Abraham (far right) have since fled their homes, enduring hunger and dangerous, physically brutal journeys across borders–a journey that proved fatal for one journalist last year. They now struggle to survive in exile, fearing every day that their family members will face retribution. And I know that one other reporter, who is also co-owner of Setit, Dawit Isaac (not pictured), was arrested on September 23, 2001, and is still in jail.
Shortly after I started at CPJ in August 2001 as its Journalist Assistance program coordinator, Eritrea’s government rounded up senior news staff at virtually all private media outlets and sent dozens of other journalists on the run as part of a sweeping crackdown on political dissent. My job was to develop a program to provide urgent help to journalists facing severe persecution. The crisis in the Eritrean media provided a quick initiation. But as harsh, severe, and comprehensive as the crackdown was, no one imagined at the time it would also be described as enduring. Around the 2003 anniversary of the crackdown, I was speaking with the managing editor of another private publication, Milkias Mihreteab, who barely escaped arrest and went into exile in 2001. We both expressed sadness and disbelief that so many of his colleagues still languished two years later in prison. Another five years have passed since that conversation and no end is in sight.
Today, Eritrea remains the fourth worst jailer of journalists worldwide behind China, Cuba, and Burma. Eritrean prisons hold the most journalists in Africa, with not one journalist facing formal charges despite being behind bars for years at a time. Eritrea’s secret prisons also hold all but four of at least 17 journalists worldwide who are being in secret locations.
I know this photo could not be taken today. Even those who have survived are far flung: in Canada, Sweden, other parts of Africa, and some still in Eritrea. But I also know that they and other journalists inside and outside the country will not give up hoping for change, and that it will come. Setit itself stated in an open letter to the government published just a couple weeks before authorities closed down the paper: “People can tolerate hunger and other problems for a long time, but they can’t tolerate the absence of good administration and justice.”
In the photo of the staff of Setit, from left to right:
Eden Iyasu, entertainment reporter
Woldeab, computer technician
Hizbawi Mengisteab, sports reporter
Fessehaye (Joshua) Yohannes, reporter and co-owner, arrested on September 26, 2001; died in prison in 2007
Semret Seyoum, reporter and co-owner, arrested January 6, 2002, and released December 2002; in exile in Sweden
Tedros Abraham, reporter, in exile
Aaron Berhane (seated), editor in chief and co-owner, in exile in Toronto
Dawit Issak, reporter and co-owner, is not in the photo. Isaak was arrested September 23, 2001, and is still being held.