Yusuf Mohamed Ali was editor-in-chief of the private Tsigenay newspaper and was one of several journalists arrested after the Eritrean government summarily banned the privately owned press on September 18, 2001, in response to growing criticism of President Isaias Afewerki. 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. CPJ is aware of reports that Yusuf may have died in detention but has not been able to independently confirm this.
Eritrean authorities have never accounted for the whereabouts, health, or legal status of Yusuf and the others. In 2007, CPJ confirmed that at least one of the journalists arrested in 2001, Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, died in secret detention.
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. 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 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.