Medhanie Haile, a lawyer, civil servant, and editor of the privately owned publication Keste Debana, was among several journalists arrested following the Eritrean government’s crackdown on independent media in 2001. His critical articles called for the rule of law and he was also among a group of journalists who wrote to the Ministry of Information in September 2001 asking for an explanation after the shutdown of the private press. His 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.
Medhanie 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 Medhanie and the others. CPJ confirmed in 2007 that one of the journalists, Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, died in secret detention. CPJ has been unable to confirm reports that others, including Medhanie, perished in custody. CPJ continues to list the journalists on the prison census as a means of holding the government accountable for their fates.
Medhanie’s paper was one of several that 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.
In a 2015 article published by The Guardian, Abraham Zere, executive director of the free speech advocacy group PEN Eritrea in Exile, wrote that Medhanie was a lawyer by profession who also worked for the ministry of justice. Medhanie wrote critical articles “calling for the rule of law to be firmly established in the country post-independence,” according to Abraham. Following the banning of the private press on September 18, 2001, Medhanie was one of a group of journalists that addressed a letter to the Ministry of Information asking for clarification, according to a 2009 blog post by Aaron Behrane, former editor of Setit newspaper who now lives in exile, published by CPJ.
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 at a military prison, Adi Abeito, based in Asmara.
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 the deaths of as many as seven journalists in custody.
In 2010, the Ethiopian government-sponsored Radio Wegahta cited a purported former Eritrean prison guard, Eyob Habte, as saying that Medhanie had died in Eiraeiro Prison for lack of medical care. The details could not be independently confirmed, although CPJ sources considered it to be generally credible. In 2009, the London-based Eritrean opposition news site Assena published purported death certificates of Medhanie and three others.
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."
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.”
CPJ sent emails to Netabay and Information Minister Yemane G. Meskel in September 2019, asking about the status and health of imprisoned journalists, but did not receive any response.
In October 2019, CPJ called the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs to inquire about the imprisoned journalists. An official who refused to identify himself answered the call and said it would not be appropriate to discuss the cases over the phone. He directed CPJ to contact the government through the Ministry of Information or via Eritrea’s embassies; CPJ emailed the embassies in Kenya, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States, but did not receive any replies.