Reporters Without Borders today called on the Eritrean authorities, as they approach the 10th anniversary of Eritrea’s independence on 24 May, to put an immediate and unconditional end to the illegal imprisonment of 18 journalists, who are being held in an undisclosed location, without being brought to trial and without any official reason ever being given for their detention.
"We would like to remind you that, according to the United Nations, imprisonment as a punishment for the peaceful expression of opinion constitutes a serious violation of human rights," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a letter to President Issaias Afeworki. "As far as we know, these journalists were just doing their work and exercising their right to inform their fellow citizens, a right guaranteed by several international treaties ratified by Eritrea."
The letter added: "This lack of freedom of expression prevents citizens from full exercising their rights and duties, won 10 years ago after 30 years of struggle against the Ethiopian dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam. The release of these journalists, just a few days before Eritrea commemorates its independence, would clearly signal your commitment to human rights and press freedom."
On 18 September 2001, the government ordered the closure of all the privately-owned newspapers. At the same time, it launched an unprecedented wave of arrests of Eritrean journalists. A year and a half later, 18 journalists are still detained in undisclosed locations by the authorities. They have not been brought to trial and no official reason has been given for their arrest. Most other journalists have fled the country, finding refuge in Europe, North America or other parts of Africa.
Reporters Without Borders believes it is unacceptable that the authorities of a country can, with full impunity, simply deprive its people of the right to be informed. Eritrea is today the only country in Africa, and one of the last in the world, without privately-owned news media. The only media permitted in Eritrea are those owned by the state, which are under the regime’s close control. The few foreign correspondents cannot work freely and in complete safety.
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.
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.
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. Finally 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.