Setit's Staff2000.jpg
Setit's staff in 2000

Truth about jailed journalists is locked away in Eritrea

By Mohamed Hassim Keita/CPJ Africa Research Associate on April 9, 2010 4:43 PM ET

In the reclusive Red Sea nation of Eritrea, the fate of 10 journalists who disappeared in secret prisons following a September 2001 government crackdown has been a virtual state secret—only occasionally pierced by shreds of often unverifiable, secondhand information smuggled out of the country by defectors or others fleeing into exile.

Adding to this trickle of information was a grim account last week detailing the supposed deaths of five journalists in government custody and the whereabouts, health, and detention conditions of the others. The account, broadcast by Radio Wegahta, an opposition station based in Eritrea’s archfoe neighbor Ethiopia, came from Eyob Bahta Habtemariam, described as a former supervisory guard at two prisons northeast of the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

Habtemariam said he began working at Embatkala prison on September 17, 2001. According to Habtemariam, that’s where Fessehaye “Joshua” Yohannes, a co-founder of Setit, once Eritrea’s largest circulation newspaper, and a recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, died in 2003. CPJ had already listed Yohannes in its database of journalists killed in the line of duty following unofficial but credible reports of his death. Authorities in Asmara declined to confirm or deny the reports. Yohannes was among the editors of now-banned private newspapers who were thrown in prison barely a week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks; they were jailed in connection with articles calling on the increasingly authoritarian leader Isaias Afeworki to follow the country’s democratic constitution.

Setit's staff in happier days in 2000.Habtemariam went on to say that in 2003 the remaining prisoners were transferred to Eiraeiro maximum-security prison, northeast of Embatkala in a remote desert region. The prison, he claimed, was designed for slow, silent deaths away from public view. Here’s what else he had to say: Prisoners have never been interrogated or told which crimes they committed. They are held in handcuffs and leg irons 24 hours a day and fed one meal a day. Extreme heat was responsible, he claimed, for the June 2003 death of Editor Yusuf Mohamed Ali of the now-defunct Tsigenay newspaper. A year later, Editor Medhanie Haile of Keste Debena died from lack of medical treatment and Editor Said Abdelkader of Admas committed suicide, he claimed. Habtemariam also reported the death of Editor Mattewos Habteab of Meqaleh. According to Habtemariam, the remaining detainees, including Setit co-founder Dawit Isaac, a Swedish citizen who was freed in 2005 but thrown back into prison two days later, are in pitiful physical and mental health. Habtemariam claimed he last saw the prisoners in January of this year, prior to his own escape.

Is this information accurate? After all, it’s being broadcast by an opposition station so there is plenty of reason to question both motives and accuracy.

CPJ called Eritrean officials in Asmara for comment about the allegations. Emmanuel Hadgo, a public relations officer of the Eritrean Information Ministry denied that Eyob Bahta Habtemariam ever worked for the government and rejected the contents of the interview. Hadgo also denied the existence of prisons with such conditions.

But what about the journalists? Are they OK? The spokesman, taking the government’s long-time stance, disavowed any knowledge whatsoever about the imprisoned editors. By the government’s accounting, these human beings have disappeared.

True or not, the newest grim report hit friends and families of the journalists very hard. “This is really painful you know. What can I say? It’s really terrible,” said Yohannes’ friend and the former editor-in-chief of Setit, Aaron Berhane, who narrowly escaped arrest and lives in exile. For Esayas Isaac, Dawit Isaac’s brother living in Sweden, the government’s refusal to provide any information about the conditions of the jailed journalists compounds the anguish. “It’s very difficult to speak to people from the regime. They tell us we’re CIA, we’re sent by the Americans.” During an interview last summer, in response to a question about which “crime” Dawit Isaac had committed, Afeworki declared “I don’t know” but added without elaboration that the journalist had made “a big mistake.”

“If he says Dawit made a ‘mistake’, then he should please let us know what it is. What we’re asking is give him a trial or release him,” Esayas Isaac said. For Afeworki, who indefinitely suspended the country’s constitution after the 2001 crackdown, such legalities do not seem to apply. Speaking of Dawit Isaac in the same June 2009 interview, he declared: “No, we don't release him. We don't take [him] to trial. We know how to deal with him and others like him and we have our own ways of dealing with that.”

In fact, among the top nations worldwide whose jails are filled with the most journalists (Eritrea trails only Iran, China and Cuba), Eritrea is the only place where absolutely none of those being held have been charged with a crime, subjected to legal action, or granted visits. As brutal as Iran’s ongoing post-election press crackdown  has been, some of the jailed journalists and writers were granted short-term furloughs recently. In China, with a few exceptions, journalists are consistently taken to court. All the Cuban journalists rounded up in a 2003 government crackdown were tried, albeit in summary proceedings. Even North Korea recently gave American journalists their day in court.

Over the years, Eritrean officials have given inconsistent justifications for the September 2001 media crackdown. Officials have variously accused the journalists, many of them former guerilla fighters with Afeworki’s Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front, with violating media law regulations, evading mandatory national service, engaging in antistate activities or links with foreign intelligence. At times, officials even sought to erase the jailed journalists from collective memory as when President Isaias responded to a question about Yohannes in a 2004 interview with: “I don’t know him.”

With the president’s absolute grip on state media and the memory of the jailed journalists fading, the government has started rewriting history. In November 2009 for instance, in response to a CPJ inquiry about jailed journalists, Hadgo of the Information Ministry, told the following to CPJ: “I am not aware of any imprisoned journalists in our country. Eritrea is very small and the names you have called I would have known if they were in our prisons, you have wrong information.”

Hadgo went on to say that the only imprisoned Eritrean journalists he was aware of were held in Ethiopia, referring to state TV staffers who have been in Ethiopian custody since 2006.  I am not aware whether they are a live or dead. We heard the whole thing from the news,” he said. It sounds familiar.


Oh my God. I just don't know how long the world can tolerate these creatures exterminating the innocent and abusing the peace-loving people of Eritrea.

This is the worst dictator of all time that kills thousands of his own people by torture, heat and hunger. any one can feel this scary, cruel and tough situation on the streets of asmera. Asmera, one's the hottest city in africa, feels so cold and scary this days. Old and & cracked buildings, very few people going in out, it is just scary and so saddening to see and witness how one person affects the whole population.

National Security is more important than a mere irresponsible, handful, disgruntled so called "journalists"

If they put their selfish ego first and serve some special interest groups only to get some petty cash to run their Newspaper busines (I would love to call it a "Newsletter" since the total volume is between 6-8 pages).

The more CPJ and other self proclaimed guardians made noise, the more they expose the identity and undercover deals they have with these so called "newsletter journalists" and the more the government reluctant to compromise.

So for the sake of these editors under custody please make less noise ... if possible shut up!

H.E. Ms Angela Merkel,
The Federal Chancellor of Germany,
Bundeskanzler Amt, Berlin

H.E. Mr. Guido Westerwelle,
The Foreign Office, Federal Germany,
Auswärtiges Amt, AA,
Werderscher Markt 1, 10117, Berlin 22 March, 2010

Dear Excellencies,

I, the undersigned chairman of an Eritrean opposition party in exile struggling for change and democratization in our country, am taking the liberty of addressing your esteemed Offices, and through your good Offices to all concerned governmental and non-governmental German institutions, to express our deep regret that some of your authorities have innocently allowed the so-called Young-PFDJs (named after the repressive People’s Front for Democracy and Justice of the Eritrean president, Isaias Afeworki) to hold a jamboree in Berlin between 1 and 5 April 2010. This group, known to many Eritreans as the “Isaias Youth”, is an embryonic copy of the awesome Hitler Jugend of the last century. We appeal to you that this Eritrean version of an ugly history in Germany, and an emerging tool of the hated regime in Asmara that is under targeted sanctions by the international community for its multiple abuses against the peace, security and best interests of all peoples in the Red Sea basin, should not be encouraged to grow in Europe.

Dear Madame, Dear Sir,

As you very well know, Eritrea is turned into a big prison of its own people. Over 300,000 young men and women are kept in war-trenches and other tens of thousands of Eritrean youth are subjected to brain washing at concentration camps like the infamous Sawa, which are euphemistically called “schools”. The organization called Young-PFDJs, which is now due to gather young Eritreans in Berlin from all over Europe is nothing but a dangerous propaganda tool of the dictatorial regime in our country.

It may interest you to know how these Young-PFDJs are coming to Berlin. The parents and relatives of young persons are subjected by Eritrean embassy staff and their messengers in Germany to acts of intimidation, psychological pressure and threats of vengeance against their relatives in Eritrea if their sons and daughters ever dare fail to appear at the Berlin jamboree. No young Eritrean and his/her parents will be given visas to Eritrea anytime, and their properties in Eritrea will be in danger if the young ones do not take part in the event. Similar campaign through harassment of relatives is going on in all parts of Europe to make the show in Berlin a “success”.

You could already have noticed that the demonstrations the Eritrean regime organized in Geneva and other places last February against the targeted UN sanctions imposed on the regime were arranged in a similar manner of wicked intimidations and threats to life and property – brutal acts that could not be imagined to have occurred in Europe of the 21st century.

Dear Madame, Dear Sir,

We, members of the EPDP and other Eritreans opposed to the regime in Asmara, trust you will agree that this unwarranted act of intimidation against civilian Eritreans living in Germany and the rest of Europe is unacceptable under all circumstances. Therefore, we strongly call upon you and your esteemed governmental institutions to investigate these intimidations and threats and take appropriate action against the agents of the Eritrean regime in Germany. By copy of this message, we shall request similar action in many European countries in which Eritreans live in great numbers.

We remain at your disposal to provide any information required to justify our claims against the abuses of the Eritrean embassy staff and their agents in Germany and other countries in Europe against innocent civilians holding European and/or Eritrean passports.
With kind regards,

Woldeyesus Ammar,

Those who supprt this notorous gangs tell us the Journalists were national security threat. Where is the evidense it takes decades to bring them to court. Those supprt the regime living in the west are collaboratos stooges need to face justice for their collaboration. This is un Eritrea charachter to datain people for ever.

OK, as sad as this news may be what is complicating the situation and to some extent became responsible for the suffering of the journalists is the fact that external organizations who were no where to be seen when Eritreans were suffering under the merciless hands of the Ethiopian regiems, have been trying to educate and to tell the Eritrean government what they need to do to run the country. This is, as irrational it may sound, the core of the problem. The moment someone tells the government what they need to do, like "release the prinsoners", right there you lost them and they will never release them just so YOU do not get your way. So, understanding how the gorvenment and Eritreans in general think is extremely important.

Eritea has a very low profile in media.
Journalists, Please do something by exposing the suffering of Eritreans.

The so-called "free press" in Eritrea was working for their pay master, CIA, on destabilizing and dividing the strong unity of the people so that Eritea couldn't sustain the policy of self-sufficient and independent.
The CIA, still haven't been giving up on trying to break the back bone of this small, fierce and politically & economically independent country from being a role model to black Africa.
It is in CIA interest to see Eritrea fail and blacken the name of this bright country through world media and other so-called "human right groups".

The Eritrean government is an enemy towards his oun people. And the very few Eritreans from outside Eritrea trying to advocate for the governement I call them all hypocrats and the mouthpiece of the dicator. This is from inside Eritrea. Hear our voice we are tortured by our own brothers. We are under the most hostile rule ever in the face of the earth.

Why are the western invaders trying to manipulate Africa in the name of freedom of press? If the man is Eritrean and failed to serve the nation according to the constitution, then he deserves the pay. Period.
If Isaias is dictator, then it is up to the people of Eritrea to get it off not that of the blood-thirsty Americans or wicked Europeans who try to infiltrate independent nations by the name of human rights and aid. It was Eritreans by themselves that liberated their nation not you 'press activists'. We all Africans are aware of what you blood-sucker westerners are

Esayas is not a human being but a blood thirsty silly demon of a godless nation. May God send his wrath and erase that cursed land and the cowardly and sinful people from the face of the earth.

What is criminal is the Western nations that have their people seat on judgement on Charles Taylor while they have an embassy in the concentration camp called Eritrea and receive some monster as ambassador. The EU even gives financial aid for the man who tortures his own people and comrades in arms. What a hypocrite uncivilized world system we live in:
Duke Ellington the famous black jazz musician put it: "... And I say to my self what a wonderful world."

No matter who asks for the rights of the speachless he is doing his human obligation and who is ever standing on the side of the opressor is just a beats. If we fail to realize it is worth advocating on behalf of our brothers and sisters the international community should.

Do not try to cover your barbaric, evil and brutal regime under the national security. There is no nation that could be rescued by distroying its people and resources. Shame on the dictator and his blind supporters. Don't forget you will reap what u r sawing.

Why would the CPJ and the so call Opposition head qaurter tell us the reason why the Jouranilist are in jail. They know the reason. It looks the CPJ cares more about our own brothers and sisters that are in jail. How about they talk about the innocent people that are in jail under US ran prisons everywhere. You wouldn't talk about that, the US is too powerfull for you or they are financing your job. If you are about victims, talk about those innocent people that are dying everywhere under US\UK bombs. Who telling their stories, who is telling the stories about the kids that are dying with US\UK bombs and jails. Who -- CPJ do you have anything to say on this?

its outragoes that this happening, but the worst part is there a lot Eritreans who believes this a consipirasy or interfirance from the West and this is a right thing to do or they deserve this. Wake up people,whats wrong with you...... and what national security? give me a break. this got nothing to do anything with monitering the media i can understand but puting people in jail without no court apperance....

For those whom you beleive for national security, Why the Isaias bring the prisener
to open court and accuse them infront the world and let them respond to thier accuseation. simple why you chiet your self
and others. Eritrean didn't fough for 30 year
to lose the fundamental right of it people.


Hello I am not sure that any journalists and journals (media) free if you say VOA or BBC I advice you to read more about media like other the government of Eritrea control its media like other countries do. Me as am Eritrean I need the government makes me to work hard (like Eritrea government do) to bring developed country for our children so the major of Eritrea government is right we don’t need to heir and read unnecessary ELEKA BELEKA

The point is not even in their crimes for nobody knows their crime not even the leader. even if they worked for CIA as claimed, natural justice wd call for them to be held accountable in the democratic way set up in the constitution.
So whether you support your government in dealing with those who dissent or not the question is are those opposing the government dealth with in a humane way?

All I can say is that there is no freedom of the press anywhere on earth. Those of us who live in the west do have it to a certain extent but we are no different than people in China or in some places in Africa. We can say and write freely upto a certain point but when our expression begins to make a difference then we are systemicaly shut down in the guise of different legal jargons. The only difference between here in the west and in a place like Eritrea is that you are told up-front that you can't play with certain poltical views for the simple fact it may polorize society and distablze the nation. There is no sugar coating about it. Yes we can say and write our poltical views here in the west but it is within a legal scope the establishment framed for us. If you cross that scope then you find yourself in big trouble and it is justified. When that is done in places like Eritrea it is considered anti-press freedom. All you have to remember is what happend right after september 11 to understand that there is no freedom of press in the world. What is the CPJ fighting for realy? I question that sometimes.

All I can say is that there is no freedom of the press anywhere on earth. Those of us who live in the west do have it to a certain extent but we are no different from people in China or in some places in Africa. We can say and write freely up to a certain point but when our expression begins to make a difference then we are systemically shut down in the guise of different legal jargons. The only difference between here in the west and in a place like Eritrea is that you are told up-front that you cannot play with certain political views for the simple fact it may polarize society and destabilize the nation. There is no sugar coating about it. Yes, we can say and write our political views here in the west but it is within a legal scope the establishment framed for us. If you cross that scope then you find yourself in big trouble and it is justified. When that is done in places like Eritrea, it is considered anti-press freedom. All you have to remember is what happened right after September 11 to understand that there is no freedom of press in the world. What is the CPJ fighting for really? I question that sometimes.

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