Mattewos Habteab, founder and editor of the weekly Meqaleh newspaper, was among about 11 journalists arrested in September 2001 following a government crackdown on the independent press in Eritrea. Like most of those arrested, Mattewos’ 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. CPJ has been unable to confirm reports that Mattewos died in custody and retains his name on the prison census to hold the government accountable for his fate.
Mattewos was arrested after the government summarily banned the privately owned press on September 18, 2001, in response to growing criticism of President Isaias Afwerki.
Mattewos’s paper was one of several that reported on divisions between reformers and conservatives within the ruling People’s Front 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 who wrote a letter to the Ministry of Information demanding clarification on the decision to shut down the private press, according to a 2009 CPJ blog by Aaron Behrane, former editor of Eritrea’s Setit newspaper, who died in exile in 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 northeastern Eiraeiro prison camp or Adi Abeito military prison near Asmara.
Mattewos, who worked with Berhane at Setit before founding Meqaleh, had been jailed previously for an opinion piece he wrote about the government’s disdain for journalists during Eritrea’s 1961 to 1991 war for independence. He was detained in the "Track B" military prison in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, for several months.
Over the years, Eritrean officials have offered vague and inconsistent explanations for the arrests–accusing journalists 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 of the journalists arrested in 2001 have died in custody—including Mattewos in Eiraeiro prison camp. CPJ confirmed in 2007 that one of the journalists, Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, died in secret detention.
In 2010, the Ethiopian government-sponsored Radio Wegahta interviewed a purported former Eritrean prison guard, Eyob Bahta Habtemariam, who said that Mattewos had died in Eiraeiro prison. The details could not be independently confirmed, although CPJ sources considered it generally credible.
In a 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 "in good hands." Asked if they would face trial, Osman said they would "when the government decides" since some were "political prisoners."
In 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 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.