What's become of the people in this photo?

By Elisabeth Witchel/Journalist Assistance Program and Impunity Campaign Coordinator on December 4, 2008 2:36 PM ET

Setit's staff in 2000This 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

Senait, secretary

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. 


Errrmmm... I think you should advocate for solution to the Ethio/Eritrean border, to take out the excuse for all this state of emergency

Eritrea is the worst journalist jailer in africa. eritrean regime is also

-lowest GDP growth in africa according to IMF
-only african country with zero private media
- one-party state
- no opposition parties allowed in eritrea
- persecutes evangelicals
- gives arm assistance to islamists in somalia

so why does CPJ never tell western governments to sanction eritrea?
last year the US congressman Donald Payne went to Eritrea to give support to the eritrean dictator. why does CPJ ignore the top supporter of the eritrean dictator, Congressman Donald Payne??



Dear Elisabeth Witchel

Your report is valid. I hope it's OK to send a link to your blog to some Eritrean websites. What Sam has written above is the usual excuse the government of Eritrea used to close down independent media...



What does the Ethio/Eritrean border have to do with a government violating basic human rights?

All of these jornalists have worked with the enemy, so it´s natural to put the enemy spies in to custody.

Bravo all knowning Lemin, your ignorance has flowed from your crooked mind to the internet. Those are lovely children of Eritrea who grew up in the bushes of Sahel and paid dearly for their efforts to be the mouth pieces of God Given FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION. Idiots don't understand this and I am happy Lemin is one of them

To Gabriel:
Let us, as Eritreans, rid the "excuse" that Eritrea's liberators are using once and for all and advocate for the unequivocal acceptance of the Algiers Peace Agreement which calls for a unobstructed withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Eritrean soil. That is top priority for every Eritrean. Are we in agreement?

I mean, if you knew anything about politics, you would know that the Weyane (Ethiopian government,) encouraged by the U.S., will try to use their military occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories as a bargaining chip for FINAL & BINDING ruling by the EEBC. Very simple Politics! If you haven't noticed (

The media has to get it's source of income from somewhere right? If "independent reporting" is based upon how much pay is doled out for specific types of "news," what exactly, then, makes it "independent?" Independent to what? Be misused and even deliberately abused?

Eritrea has been making modest to extraordinary gains in various feilds in health and education that what's dubbed the "independent media" deliberately ignores. There has been an infatuation, lately, to portray Eritrea in a bad light despite the governments legal, just and moral stance on the most important issues regarding regional peace.

With the way that the winds of Western interests blow, the "independent media" always seem to fade into and out of the background accordingly.

The world's superpowers either supported Ethiopia's chokehold over Eritreans or just sat back and watched as their "ally" swallow Eritrea whole. Where was the "independent media" then? No where, of course, because the money wasn't there to create it! There is an eerily strong correlation between Western interests and the number of "independent media" outlets.

Ask yourself would the "independent media" focus on internal politics of the U.S. if California was being militarily occupied by Mexico in a "border stalemate"?? Yes, but only if the "independent media" was getting it's source of income from Russia!

You don't have the freedom to "yell fire in a crowded area." And in Eritrea, you won't have the freedom to try to roll back our Political & Economic Independence that our victorious martyrs fought for.

Demarcate the border, remove the national security excuse, allow the men and women in service to come home, to an Eritrea not in a state of war and allow THEM to clean THEIR country.
It is easy for us to simply pick sides from the comfy western world.j

In Eritrea, people have to live with the grim reality that its southern neighbour, who is 15 times its size, wants to remove its hard won independance.

Advocate fore peace and empower our people to make the changes they see fit! NOT WHAT WE SEE FIT FOR THEM!!!

Toronto Eritrean December 5, 2008 12:49:23 PM ET

Bravo Elisabeth,

You have said it very well. We Eritreans are a bit unlucky to deserve all this. But One thing we now know is we are still under colonazation with different ethiopian dictator. Sadly there is no revolution taking place to put an end this misery. I just hope God willing this tormnting life will end soon.

Thank you again

hello go do somethoing about The Guantanamo Bay Naval Station as a journalist you should try expose this the biggest injustice known to mankind

It is amazing how the foot soldiers of this lunatic serial killer aka Gobye think. They sit with their fat arse in the West world and hoped the dictator will protect the country using all kind of excuse to abuse,torch,kill and put in prison the entire population. The no.1 enemey of the people is the Dictaror him self. The Beleses living in the West are the second enemy of the Eritrean people. The people of Eritrea don't deserve this. The dictator is loosing it and he is playing with fire. Trust me, you going to pay for it.

To Eritrean

Just to answer your 'complicated' question...

How come you are using independent media base here (CPJ site) to air your concern? Should you not use Eritrean government websites?

And if you support the closing down of Eritrean independent media in September of 2001, I have nothing left to say.


Well I believe in reality and fact. These Journalists r suffering for just had their say about their ppl and country so that the Eritrean regime prisoned them just for its cruelness and dictatorness!! THERE IS ONE DAY THE PPL OF ERITREA WILL BE FREE FROM THIS CRUEL REGIME AND SEE BRIGHT LIGHT OF FUTURE. God bless all prisoners of conscience in deed!

To Eritrean,

Who cares either Badme is under Ethiopean occupation or not? since 2.5 million of Eritrean ppl r in starvation ...thik again have u ever think or see how the eritrean ppl r suffering from shortage of food i mean daily food demand!! I don't understand when u say "for a unobstructed withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Eritrean soil. That is top priority for every Eritrean. Are we in agreement?" shame on u!! ppl need food not BADME or DEMARCATION plz !!

Algeries agreement or what i don't but that kind of excuses let the time tell wht's happened in the pretext war in Badme...and also say let demarcate the border, would u expect the Regime will set FREE the ppl of Eritrea? hell NO!! That's wast of time!!


@Eritrean. well spoken wedi adey. just wonder if i heard those ppl talk too much about some thing they don't know.

How do you prove some of the reporters in jail r not alive.maybe a shame one day

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