Eritrea was the world’s biggest prison for journalists at the end of 2002. This is the first time in many years that an African country achieved this grim distinction. Most of the imprisoned journalists had been held since September 2001 in an undisclosed location without any official reason. The authorities referred to this situation on several occasions during 2002 while remaining evasive about the charges against the detainees. No date had yet been set for any trial.
Eritrea is still the only country in Africa, and one of the very few in the world, to have no privately-owned news media. Aside from the international radio stations that can be received in certain regions, the state is the only source of news. It controls the television and radio and the few newspapers. Journalists working for the state-owned news media have no room for manoeuvre. They just relay the government’s propaganda. No criticism of the government is tolerated.
During its first session since September 2000, the national assembly noted in January 2002 that "the press, financed by foreigners, failed in its duty and sank into defamation and rumour." The assembly announced that a committee was being set up with the job of carrying out "the necessary preparations to enable the press to begin a new, positive phase."
The European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the human rights situation in Eritrea in February because of the gravity of the situation and its concern about the lack of action by the authorities. The resolution called "for the ban on an independent press to be lifted" and said EU development cooperation should be made conditional on "substantial progress being achieved in the areas of human rights and democratisation, in particular freedom of speech, press and assembly, and the holding of democratic elections."
All the journalists who escaped the arrests in September 2001 have fled the country for asylum abroad. A number of journalists with the state-owned media also decided to leave Eritrea in 2002 to escape reprisals. The Association of Eritrean Journalists in Exile (EJE) was formed in the United States in February. It groups about 50 Eritrean journalists who have found asylum in the United States, Canada and Europe and campaigns for the return of a free press in Eritrea.
At least 18 journalists were in prisons in Eritrea at the end of 2002. Zemenfes Haile, former editor and founder of Tsigenay, is believed to have been held in a camp in the desert since 1999. Ghebrehiwet Keleta, another Tsigenay journalist, is believed to have been arrested in July 2000. No information is available about the place of detention of these two journalists, or the reason they are being held.
The privately-owned newspapers announced on 18 September 2001 that by government decision they were publishing their last issues until further notice. The next day, no privately-owned newspaper came out. The director of the state-owned television station said 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 closure of these newspapers came on the same day as the arrests of seven former ministers and generals who had become very critical of President Issaias Afeworki. They were part of a group of 15 leading figures who had publicly asked the president for "more democracy" in Eritrea. From 18 to 21 September 2001, at least 10 journalists from the privately-owned media were picked up by the authorities and taken to Asmara police station No. 1. The precise reason for their arrest was not announced, but most of them had interviewed or quoted the president’s critics.
The ten detained journalists were Tsigenay’s editor in chief, Yusuf Mohamed Ali, who had already been jailed for several weeks in October 2000; Mattewos Habteab, editor in chief of Meqaleh, who had already been arrested several times in 2000 and 2001; Dawit Habtemichael, deputy editor in chief of Meqaleh; Medhanie Haile, deputy editor in chief of Keste Debena; Temesgen Gebreyesus, a member of Keste Debena’s board; Emanuel Asrat, editor in chief of Zemen; Dawit Isaac and Fessehaye Yohannes of the newspaper Setit; Said Abdulkader, a journalist with the magazine Admas; and freelance photographer Seyoum Tsehaye.
The ten journalists began a hunger strike on 31 March 2002. In a letter from prison, they said they were protesting against their illegal detention and demanded "their right to justice," in particular, a trial before a "fair and independent court." Nine of them were transferred to an unknown place of detention on 3 April. Police at Asmara police station No. 1 told relatives they were no longer in their cells. Army personnel and presidential aides had reportedly taken them to a secret place.
The tenth journalist on hunger strike, Isaac, was also transferred to an unknown place after receiving care at Halibet hospital because of ill-treatment during detention. Two other journalists, Selamyinghes Beyene of Meqaleh and Binyam Haile of Haddas Eritrea, were also reportedly detained in the autumn of 2001.
Simret Seyoum, editor of the newspaper Setit, was arrested on 6 January near the Sudanese border as he was trying to flee. He was believed to be detained in a prison in that area.
Three journalists with the state-owned media were arrested in January and February 2002: Hamid Mohamed Said and Saidia of Eri-TV and Saleh Al Jezaeeri of the Voice of the Broad Masses radio station. The authorities gave no explanation. In August, presidential spokesperson Yemane Gebremeskel acknowledged only that eight journalists were imprisoned. He said they were being held because of "national security concerns" and maintained that they had not been ill-treated. The national secretary of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), Alamin Mohammed Said, said during a visit to Saudi Arabia in September that the Eritrean government was getting ready to try the jailed journalists for "treason."