Ghebrehiwet Keleta, a reporter for the privately owned weekly Tsigenay, was arrested in 2000. Like most of those arrested, Ghebrehiwet’s whereabouts, health, and legal status remain unknown as the Eritrean government repeatedly has failed to provide credible answers to questions about imprisoned journalists or to allow visits from family or lawyers.
Security agents arrested Ghebrehiwet while he was on his way to work. He has not been heard from since his arrest. Sources told CPJ at the time that Ghebrehiwet was being held in connection with a government crackdown on the press.
Following Ghebrehiwet’s arrest, the government suddenly banned the privately owned press on September 18, 2001, in response to growing criticism of President Isaias Afwerki. Days later, about 11 journalists were arrested after several of them wrote a letter to the Ministry of Information demanding clarification on the decision to shut down the private press.
Over the years, Eritrean officials have offered vague and inconsistent explanations for the arrests of journalists–accusing them of involvement in anti-state conspiracies in connection with foreign intelligence, skirting military service, and violating press regulations. Officials, at times, even denied that the journalists existed.
Meanwhile, shreds of often unverifiable, second- or third-hand information smuggled out of the country by people fleeing into exile suggested that seven journalists arrested in 2001 had died in custody.
In 2010, exiled journalists told CPJ that Ghebrehiwet might have been released. But in 2013, another exiled journalist told CPJ that one of Ghebrehiwet’s children, who had fled Eritrea, said Ghebrehiwet was still in custody. A relative of the journalist also told CPJ in 2014 that Ghebrehiwet was still in prison.
In 2018, Paulos Netabay, director of the state-owned Eritrean News Agency, told CPJ that the arrest of other journalists in 2001 was connected to “subversion and treason by some former politicians” and would be dealt with by parliament but he made no mention of Ghebrehiwet’s case.
In 2021, CPJ and 15 other human rights organizations, journalists, and human rights experts called on the Canadian government to impose targeted sanctions on senior Eritrean officials for human rights abuses, including the imprisonment of journalists.
In a May 2023 report, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, said the whereabouts and wellbeing of disappeared Eritreans remained unknown, including 16 journalists who had been held for more than 20 years, making them the longest detained journalists in the world.
As of late 2023, CPJ’s emails to Eritrea’s minister of information, Yemane Ghebremeskel, and via the ministry website did not receive any replies. A person who answered a phone call to the ministry of foreign affairs provided an email address for queries but CPJ’s email did not receive any response. A person who answered two calls at the ministry of justice could not be heard clearly.