With the number of days since Eritrea’s “Black Tuesday” of 18 September 2001 about to reach 2,000, Reporters Without Borders today urged the Eritrean diaspora to demand an explanation from the government in Asmara for the disappearance of at least 14 journalists in the country’s prisons, four of whom are feared dead.
“Tomorrow will be the 2,000th day since President Issaias Afeworki ordered all the privately-owned newspapers to stop publishing and proceeded to arrest all the leading journalists in the capital,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The Eritrean diaspora, which played a key role in supporting the independence war, must today make its voice heard and insist that President Issaias respect the country’s constitution and laws.”
The press freedom organisation added: “He must immediately provide an explanation for the disappearance of prisoners of conscience and free those who have not already succumbed to the appalling condition in his country’s prisons.”
In a series of dawn raids on Tuesday, 18 September 2001, the police arrested 10 leading politicians, legislators, former ministers and independence war veterans who had signed a petition calling for democracy in Eritrea. The eight Asmara-based privately-owned newspapers were ordered to stop appearing.
At least 10 journalists were arrested in the days that followed. They included Fessehaye “Joshua” Yohannes, a leading playwright, Setit journalist and independence war veteran who died on 11 January 2007 in Eiraeiro, a secret military prison in the northeast of the country; Dawit Isaac, a poet and playwright with dual Eritrean-Swedish citizenship, and co-founder of the country’s most popular weekly, Setit, of whom there has been no news since he was rearrested after a brief release in November 2005; and Dawit Habtemichael, a physics graduate at Asmara university and deputy editor of Meqaleh, who was arrested on the street as he was going back to teach after several days in hiding.
They also included Mattewos Habteab, founder and editor of Meqaleh, who had just been released after six weeks in Asmara’s military prison; former national TV director Seyoum Tsehaye, a onetime French teacher who became a freelance photographer after learning the trade as a pro-independence guerrilla; Emanuel Asrat, a former independence war fighter, agronomy graduate and editor of Zemen; and Temesghen Gebreyesus, a sports journalist and member of the board of Keste Debena, who was arrested on 20 September 2001.
According to information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, three other journalists, in addition to Fessehaye, have died in recent years in the Eiraeiro detention centre, where a total of nine journalists were reportedly being held. Tsigenay editor Yusuf Mohamed Ali, a former guerrilla combatant in his 50s, is believed to have died in 13 June 2006. Keste Debena co-founder and deputy editor Medhanie Haile, a law graduate, who was arrested at his home on 18 September 2001, reportedly died in February 2006. And Admas founder and editor Said Abdulkader, who co-owned a printing company with his father, is said to have died in March 2005.
In February 2002, at a time when the political climate was particularly oppressive and European Union ambassadors had been “recalled for consultation,” three journalists with state media Arabic-language services, the last to be able to operate in Eritrea, joined the list of political prisoners. They were Hamid Mohamed Said of Eri-TV’s sports and international sections, Saidia Ahmed, a young TV journalist, and Saleh Al Jezaeeri of Radio Dimtsi Hafash and the Haddas Eritrea daily newspaper. The reasons for their arrests are unclear.
More recently, 10 state media journalists were picked up in wave of arrests launched on 12 November 2006 following the defection of several leading journalists which particularly irked the authorities. They were arrested on suspicion of maintaining contact with the fugitives or trying to flee themselves. All except Daniel Musie of Radio Dimtsi Hafash’s Oromo-language service were later freed on bail but have been kept under surveillance in Asmara.
It is not known what has become of the journalists still held. Their families are not allowed to visit them and are afraid to request news of them for fear of reprisals. As for the journalists who have managed to flee the country, some of their relatives have been expelled from their homes, or arrested. Some are being held at the Adit Beto prison complex on the road north out of Asmara.
The National Press Club of Sweden awarded its Press and Free Speech Prize to Setit co-founder Dawit Isaac on 2 March. It will be presented to his family on 14 March, the 2,000th day since his arrest on 23 September 2001. According to information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, he is still alive and is being held in Asmara.