A civil servant who also contributed to the privately owned Setit newspaper, Tesfay Ghebreab, also known as Gomora, was among a group of journalists arrested in September 2001 after the government cracked down on the private press in Eritrea. 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.
Tesfay was a director in Eritrea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and contributed freelance articles to Setit. The publication’s former editor, Aaron Berhane, told CPJ that Tesfay used to write at least twice a month, sometimes under a pen name.
Authorities have never explained why they arrested Tesfay but Aaron told CPJ that it could have been connected to pieces he wrote calling for negotiations to resolve the political crisis between conservatives and reformers in the ruling party. Abraham Zere, the then-executive director of the free speech advocacy organization PEN Eritrea Exile told CPJ in 2018 that his articles in the private newspaper may have been interpreted as endorsing dissidents. The exact date of his arrest is unknown.
Amal Saleh, a U.K.-based Eritrean journalist, told CPJ in September 2017 that Tesfay is believed to have died in 2003 or 2004, according to sources who had connections to detention centers in Eritrea. CPJ was unable to independently confirm his death. In 2007, CPJ confirmed that at least one of the journalists, Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, had died in secret detention. CPJ continues to list the journalists on the prison census as a means of holding the government accountable for their fates.
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 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.