Sahle Tsegazeab, also known as Wedi Itay, a civil servant and a freelance journalist, is among the journalists who have been imprisoned in Eritrea since 2001 when the government cracked down on the independent 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.
Sahle was a civil servant in Eritrea’s attorney general’s office who contributed articles to newspapers, including the state-owned Haddas Ertra and later the privately owned Zemen, Abraham Zere, the then-executive director of the free speech advocacy organization PEN Eritrea in Exile told CPJ in 2018. Eritrean authorities arrested Sahle in October 2001, following a September 2001 crackdown on the press during which several other journalists were arrested.
Under the pen name Wedi Itay, Sahle began writing for Zemen after Haddas Ertra started censoring his pieces on “Eritrea’s deferred national dreams,” Abraham told CPJ. Abraham said that Sahle’s critical articles were widely read during the period of heightened political tension.
Sahle was arrested shortly before a planned trip to South Africa for postgraduate studies, according to Abraham and a 2004 article by Daniel Mekonnen, a former Eritrean judge who now heads the Eritrean Law Society in exile. In the article–published by the Eritrea Human Rights Electronic Archive (EHREA), a website that chronicles human rights abuses committed against Eritreans–Mekonnen, who was also part of the cohort of students slated to travel to South Africa, wrote that he last saw Sahle in Asmara in October 2001 and realized that Sahle was missing after he failed to appear for a flight to South Africa in November 2001.
Abraham told CPJ that state security officers summoned Sahle a few days before the planned trip. Mekonnen described Sahle as a “strong proponent of good governance” who paid a price for his writing. In October 2018, Mekonnen told CPJ that he had not heard any updates on Sahle’s case since he authored the 2004 article.
Officials have offered vague or inconsistent explanations for the arrests of many of the journalists arrested in the 2001 crackdown, accusing them of participation in anti-state conspiracies, violating press regulations, and other offenses. At other times, officials denied that the journalists existed.
Since the 2001 crackdown, there have been reports, including by the press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), that as many as seven journalists, including Sahle, had died in custody. However, CPJ has not been able to independently verify any reports of his death.
When asked in a June 2016 interview with Radio France International about the status of detained journalists, Eritrean Minister of Foreign Affairs Osman Saleh Mohammed said that "all of them are alive" and “in good hands" and that they would face trial "when the government decides."
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.