Idris Said, also known as Abba Arre, was a civil servant and columnist. He wrote critically about Eritrea’s language policy and about the arrests of writers in September 2001, when the government cracked down on the independent press. His whereabouts, health, and status remain unknown as the Eritrean government repeatedly has declined to provide credible answers to questions about imprisoned journalists, or to allow visits from family or lawyers.
Idris worked at Eritrea’s Ministry of Labour and Human Welfare and contributed to the privately owned weekly Tsigenay and the state-owned Arabic newspaper Eritrea Al-Haditha, according to journalists who spoke to CPJ and Abraham Zere, then the executive director of the free speech advocacy organization PEN Eritrea in Exile, who spoke to CPJ in 2018.
In February 2001, Idris wrote an article in Tsigenay that criticized the government’s language policies in education, according to the U.S.-based news site Awate, which has archived a translation of the article, and the free speech organization PEN International. Journalists who spoke to CPJ initially said that the article, in which Idris criticized the privileging of Tigrinya over other languages, had been published in August or September. They said that Idris had been arrested because of this article, but Abraham reported that the Idris drew ire for denouncing the wave of arrests of politicians and journalists in September 2001. Abraham told CPJ that Idris was arrested in October 2001.
When asked in a June 2016 interview with Radio France International about the status of journalists and politicians arrested in 2001, Eritrean Foreign Affairs Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed said "all of them are alive" and they "are in good hands." Asked if they would face trial, Osman said they would, "when the government decides" since members of the group are "political prisoners."
A veteran of the Eritrean independence movement, Idris has a pre-existing disability, according to PEN Eritrea in Exile, and according to a 2002 report by Amnesty International, this disability was likely to cause “special problems in detention.”
In October 2018, Paulos Netabay, director of the state-owned Eritrean News Agency, told CPJ that the arrest of journalists in 2001 was connected to “acts of subversion and treason by some former politicians” and that the cases had been “submitted and decided by the National Assembly.”
In June 2019, a group of over 100 prominent African journalists, writers, and activists wrote an open letter to Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki asking to visit the imprisoned journalists and activists, according to a copy of the letter that was published by the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian. In a response published on its website, Eritrea’s Ministry of Information said that only reporters with a “genuine interest in understanding the country” were welcome, and said the imprisoned journalists were arrested for “events of sedition.”
When CPJ called the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs in October 2020, no one answered the call on multiple occasions. In one instance, a person answered the phone but was inaudible, and then did not answer when CPJ called back.
CPJ sent emails to Paulos and Information Minister Yemane G. Meskel in September 2020 asking about the status and health of imprisoned journalists, but did not receive any response. CPJ emailed the Eritrea mission to the United Nations, and Eritrean embassies in Kenya, Canada, Sweden and the United States in late 2020, but did not receive any responses.