Yohannes, a publisher and editor of the defunct weekly Setit and a recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2002, died in prison, several sources in the Eritrean diaspora disclosed to CPJ in February 2007. Yohannes was among 10 independent journalists rounded up in a massive 2001 government crackdown that shuttered the nation’s private press.
Several sources said Yohannes died on January 11, 2007, after a long illness in an undisclosed prison outside Asmara; one source said the journalist may have died much earlier in a prison in Embatkala, 21 miles (35 kilometers) northeast of Asmara.
In a June 2007 interview, Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu told CPJ
that he had nothing to say about Yohannes. “I don’t know,” he said.
“This is an Eritrean issue; leave it to us. I have nothing to say.”
Yohannes 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 1993. In November 1997, he joined Setit as co-owner and board member, a former colleague told CPJ. He became a popular writer, and Setit grew into the nation’s largest-circulation newspaper.
Setit‘s 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, Yohannes asked CPJ to help him
create a journalists’ union to improve press freedom conditions.
He and other journalists never got the chance. President Isaias Afewerki’s
government launched a crackdown on all critical voices, including those
in the press, just one week after the September 11, 2001, attacks on
the United States had diverted the world’s attention. Under the pretext
of combating terrorism, the government shut down every independent
media outlet and arrested independent journalists on sight.
At the time, he and other imprisoned journalists still had contact with
the outside world. In May 2002, Yohannes and several other colleagues
staged a hunger strike in hopes of spurring their release. Instead,
government officials transferred the journalists to undisclosed
locations. Online news reports, which have not been confirmed, suggest
that as many as three other journalists also may have died in
government custody. The other jailed journalists continued to be held
incommunicado in secret jails throughout 2007, according to CPJ