When the government ordered the suspension of all privately-owned publications, on 18 September 2001, Eritrea became one of the only countries in the world without a private-sector press. About ten journalists and political opponents were arrested by the police, while others fled the country. At the end of the month the situation took on international proportions when the Italian ambassador in Eritrea was given 72 hours to leave the country. This decision followed several protests by the European Union (EU) after the arrest of opponents and journalists, and the suspension of the private-sector press.
When the Italian ambassador left Eritrea on 2 October, the Belgian presidency of the EU immediately said that this expulsion "would cause it to re-examine its relations in light of the Cotonou agreements" in terms of which economic aid is contingent on observance of human rights. The countries of the EU decided on 8 October to repatriate their ambassadors. A few days later the Dutch government announced a freeze on economic aid.
For several months the Eritrean authorities had been trying everything in their power to control the country’s young independent press. Several journalists had already been arrested in 2000, under the pretext that they had not fulfilled their military obligations.
At least eight journalists were believed to be behind bars in Eritrea on 1 January 2002. Several others have disappeared and may have been arrested.
One of them, 30-year-old Zemenfes Haile, former managing editor and founder of the newspaper Tsigenay, is believed to have been in detention for the past two years. He reportedly spent over one year in the Zara detention camp and is still detained somewhere in the Lowland regions in western Eritrea.
At least eight journalists of the privately-owned press were arrested by police between 18 and 21 September and taken to the Asmara police station N°1. The homes of other journalists were visited by the police. The exact reason for these arrests has not been disclosed.
The eight journalists arrested were: Yusuf Mohamed Ali, editor-in-chief of Tsigenay, already jailed for a few weeks in October 2000, Mattewos Habteab, editor-in-chief of Meqaleh, already arrested several times in 2000 and 2001, Medhanie Haile and Temesgen Gebreyesus, respectively editor-in-chief and member of the board of Keste Debena, Emanuel Asrat, editor-in-chief of Zemen, Dawit Isaac and Fessehaye Yohannes, of the newspaper Setit, and a freelance photographer, Seyoum Tsehaye.
On 1 January 2002 we were still without news concerning four other journalists:
Selamyinghes Beyene, reporter for Meqaleh, Aaron Berhane, editor-in-chief of Setit, Said Abdulkader, editor-in-chief of Admas, and Ghebrehiwet Keleta, journalist with Tsigenay. These press professionals are either detained in secret or have gone underground to avoid arrest.
Pressure and obstruction
Eritrea’s private-sector newspapers announced on 18 September 2001 that, due to a government decision, they were publishing their last issue, until further notice. No privately-owned newspaper was on sale the next day. The director of state television explained on the air that "the private media had time to fix their erring ways. They were putting the unity of the country in danger". The suspension sine die of the private press took place on the same day as the arrest in Asmara of seven former ministers and generals, leaders of the historical Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF, now in power) who had become very critical of President Issaias Afeworki. They were part of a group of 15 personalities who publicly asked the president in May 2001 for "more democracy" in the country, accusing him of acting in an "unconstitutional way".
In the next few days at least two journalists - Milkias Mihretab, managing editor of Keste Debena, and Semere Teazaz, one of his reporters - went into exile in Sudan and then the United States. Milkias Mihretab had been detained in very trying conditions in late 2000.
President Issaias Afeworki has been denounced as a predator of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders