Security forces raided government-controlled Radio Bana in February 2009 and arrested its entire staff, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks in November 2010.
The cable, sent by then-U.S. Ambassador Ronald McMullen and dated February 23, 2009, attributed the information to the deputy head of mission of the British Embassy in Asmara in connection with the detention of a British national who volunteered at the station. According to the cable, the volunteer reported being taken by security forces with the Radio Bana staff to an unknown location six miles (10 kilometers) north of the capital and later being separated from them. The volunteer was not interrogated and was released the next day. According to the cable, some of the station’s staff members were released as well.
The reasons for the detentions were unclear, but CPJ sources said the journalists were either accused of providing technical assistance to two opposition radio stations broadcasting into the country from Ethiopia or of participating in a meeting in which Meles spoke against the government. The staff’s close collaboration with two British nationals on the production of educational programs may have also led to their arrests, according to the same sources.
Several of the detainees had worked for other state media outlets before beginning stints at Radio Bana, a station sponsored by the Education Ministry. Ghirmai was the producer of an arts program with government-controlled state radio Dimtsi Hafash, Bereket (also a film director and scriptwriter), Meles (also a poet), and Yirgalem (a poet as well) were columnists for the state-owned paper Haddas Erta. Basilos was the head of Radio Bana, and Petros a reporter for the station. CPJ learned from an exiled journalist in 2013 of their detention with the others in 2009.
Basilos, Bereket, and Meles are believed to be held at Mai Serwa Prison, based near the capital Asmara, according to exiled Eritrean journalists.
CPJ sources confirmed that at least eight of the journalists arrested in February 2009 were released in April 2013: Araya Defoch, Biniam Ghirmay, Ismail Abdelkader, Issak Abraham, Mohammed Dafla, Mohammed Said Mohammed, Mulubruhan Habtegebriel, and Simon Elias.
Sources told CPJ that the mental health of at least two of the detainees, Yirgalem and Meles, had seriously deteriorated in detention.