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, in the weeks 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 the privately owned Zemen after the state-owned Haddass 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.
In the years 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 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 repeatedly called Eritrea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in September and November 2021, but the calls rang unanswered or did not connect. CPJ emailed Paulos and Information Minister Yemane G. Meskel in September and November 2021, but did not receive any replies. The minister also did not respond to a September 2021 query sent to his Twitter account.
CPJ emailed several Eritrean embassies—including in Sweden, the United States, and Belgium– in September and November 2021, but the emails either bounced back or did not receive a response.