Sahle Tsegazeab (Wedi Itay)

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Sahle Tsegazeab, also known as Wedi Itay, a civil servant and freelance journalist, was among about 11 journalists arrested in September 2001 following a government crackdown on the independent press in Eritrea. Like most of those arrested, Sahle’s 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 Sahle died in custody and retains his name on the prison census to hold the government accountable for his fate

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, under the pen name Wedi Itay, for the privately owned Zemen.

Sahle began writing for Zemen after Haddas Ertra started censoring his pieces on “Eritrea’s deferred national dreams,” Abraham Zere, the then-executive director of the free speech organization PEN Eritrea, told CPJ in 2018. Abraham said Sahle’s critical articles were widely read during the period of heightened political tension.

Abraham told CPJ that state security officers summoned Sahle in October 2001, following a September 2001 crackdown on the press, a few days before a planned trip to South Africa for postgraduate studies.

Daniel Mekonnen, head of the Eritrean Law Society in exile, wrote in a 2004 article for the Eritrea Human Rights Electronic Archive website, which documents abuses against Eritreans, that he was also part of the cohort of students slated to travel to South Africa. Daniel, a former judge in Eritrea, said he last saw Sahle in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, in late October and only realized that his friend had disappeared when he failed to join the departing group at the airport on November 1. Daniel described Sahle as a “strong proponent of good governance” who paid a price for his writing. 

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 Sahle who is believed to have died from lack of medical treatment in the northeastern Eiraeiro prison camp. CPJ confirmed in 2007 that one of the journalists, Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, died in secret detention.

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.