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, who died in exile in May 2021, 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 confirm his death independently. 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 to hold the government accountable for their fates.
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.”
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.