Seyoum Tsehaye founded Eritrea’s state broadcaster, Eri-TV, but later became an independent journalist who also contributed to the privately owned Setit newspaper. He was among the journalists arrested in Eritrea in September 2001 after a government crackdown. 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.
Seyoum was arrested after the government summarily banned the privately owned press on September 18, 2001, in response to growing criticism of President Isaias Afewerki.
Seyoum had been one of the founders of Eritrean state television, Eri TV, according to One Day Seyoum, an online campaign run by his niece, Vanessa Berhe, who lives in the United Kingdom. However, at the time of his arrest he was a freelance photojournalist and contributor to the privately-owned newspaper Setit. He wrote critically of the Eritrean regime and the country’s challenges after independence. Local journalists said they suspected authorities arrested Seyoum for an interview he gave Setit in which he said the government was stifling press freedom.
Eritrean authorities have never accounted for the whereabouts, health, or legal status of Seyoum and the others. In 2007, CPJ confirmed that at least one of the journalists arrested in 2001, Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, had died in secret detention. CPJ has been unable to confirm reports that others also perished in custody. CPJ continues to list the journalists on the prison census as a means of holding the government accountable for their fates.
The journalists’ papers had 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.
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.
Seyoum was being held at Eiraeiro Prison, local journalists said. A September 2016 report by Voice of America cited a prison guard who fled in 2010 saying that Seyoum’s hands were bound 24 hours a day. In late 2017, Vanessa told CPJ that Seyoum’s family had not heard anything “official or unofficial” about his condition since the information shared by the prison guard.
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.