Mattewos Habteab, founder and editor of the weekly Meqaleh newspaper, was one of several journalists arrested following a crackdown on the independent press in Eritrea in September 2001. Mattewos’ whereabouts, health, and 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. CPJ is aware of reports that Mattewos died in prison but cannot independently confirm this.
Mattewos was arrested after the government summarily banned the privately owned press on September 18, 2001, in response to growing criticism of President Isaias Afewerki. Eritrean authorities have never accounted for the whereabouts, health, or legal status of Mattewos and the others. In 2007, CPJ confirmed that at least one of the journalists arrested in 2001, Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, died in secret detention.
Mattewos’s paper reported on divisions between reformers and conservatives within the ruling Party for Democracy and Justice and advocated for full implementation of the country’s democratic constitution. A dozen top reformist officials, whose pro-democracy statements had been relayed by the independent newspapers, were also arrested.
Following the banning of the private press on September 18, 2001, Mattewos was one of a group of journalists that addressed a letter to the Ministry of Information asking for clarification, according to a 2009 blog published by CPJ and authored by Aaron Behrane, former editor of Setit newspaper who died in exile in May 2021.
Authorities initially detained the journalists at a police station in the capital, Asmara, where they began a hunger strike on March 31, 2002, and smuggled a message out of jail demanding due process. The government responded by transferring them to secret locations without bringing them before a court or publicly registering charges. Several people familiar with the situation told CPJ that the journalists were confined at the Eiraeiro prison camp or a military prison, Adi Abeito, based in Asmara.
Mattewos, who initially worked with Setit but later founded his own independent weekly, Meqaleh, had been jailed previously. He wrote an opinion piece showing the Eritrean government’s disdain for journalists during the country’s war of independence (1961-1991). This led to his arrest and detention at the "Track B" military prison in Asmara for several months.
Over the years, Eritrean officials have offered vague and inconsistent explanations for the arrests–accusing the journalists of involvement in anti-state conspiracies in connection with foreign intelligence, of skirting military service, and of 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 have suggested that as many as seven journalists have died in custody. In August 2012, the international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, citing a purported former prison guard, Eyob Habte, said Dawit Habtemichael and Mattewos Habteab had died at Eiraeiro. In 2010, the Ethiopian government-sponsored Radio Wegahta also cited a purported former Eritrean prison guard as saying that Mattewos had died at Eiraeiro. CPJ continues to list the journalists on the prison census to hold the government accountable for their fates.
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."
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.”
In October 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 July 2022, CPJ and a coalition of rights organizations and lawyers, led by the Canada-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, filed a complaint on behalf of detained Eritrean journalists with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
CPJ’s calls to Eritrea’s Ministry of Justice either did not connect or rung without an answer in November 2022. A person who answered when CPJ called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in November 2022 could not be heard clearly.
Emails sent to Eritrea’s minister of information, Yemane Ghebremeskel, and Eritrea’s embassies in Kenya, the United States, Switzerland, and Sweden were unanswered or returned error messages in October and November 2022.