Yusuf Mohamed Ali was editor-in-chief of the private Tsigenay newspaper and he is one of several journalists arrested after the government summarily banned the privately owned press on September 18, 2001, in response to growing criticism of President Isaias Afewerki. Eritrean authorities have never accounted for the whereabouts, health, or legal status of Yusuf and the others. In 2007, CPJ confirmed that least one of the journalists arrested in 2001, Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, died in secret detention. CPJ has been unable to confirm reports that others, including Yusuf, perished in custody. CPJ continues to list the journalists on the prison census as a means of holding the government accountable for their fates.
Yusuf’s paper was one of several that had reported of a crisis 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.
Following the banning of the private press on September 18, 2001, Yusuf was one of a group of journalists that addressed a letter to the Ministry of Information asking for clarification, according to a 2009 blog published by CPJ and authored by Aaron Behrane, former editor of Setit newspaper who now lives in exile.
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.
Yusuf had been jailed previously. Eritrean security forces arrested the Tsigenay founder on October 14, 2000, for his criticism of the government and the generally critical content of his paper, and imprisoned him at Zara Prison in the Western lowlands of Eritrea, exiled Eritrean journalists told CPJ.
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.
Meanwhile, shreds of often unverifiable, second- or third-hand information smuggled out of the country by people fleeing into exile have suggested that as many as seven journalists have died in custody. In August 2006, an un-bylined report on the Ethiopian pro-government website Aigaforum quoted 14 purported former Eiraeiro guards as reporting the deaths of prisoners, one of whose names closely resembled Yusuf Mohamed Ali. The details could not be independently confirmed, although CPJ sources considered the report to be generally credible. In 2009, the London-based Eritrean opposition news site Assena published purported death certificates Yusuf and three others.
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 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."
Eritrea’s government has not provided substantive information on Yusuf’s health or location. 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.” CPJ’s attempts to contact the Eritrean ministry of justice and ministry of foreign affairs by phone were unsuccessful.