Reporters Without Borders and the Association of Eritrean Journalists in Exile today adjusted their figure for the number of journalists imprisoned in Eritrea to 15 after learning that three journalists who were thought to be still in detention - Zemenfes Haile, Biniam Haile and Simret Seyoum - have in fact been released and that, contrary to previous reports, Selamyinghes Beyene was never arrested.
The two organisations also denounced the secrecy always surrounding the arrests of journalists and the blackout on information about their fate.
"While we are pleased to learn that these journalists are not detained, we firmly condemn their initial imprisonment, carried out without any trial or official reason being given, and we deeply deplore the complete lack of transparency regarding their situation," they said in a letter today to President Issaias Afeworki.
"The authorities carry out arrests in the most arbitrary way and they fail to provide any information as to where or why these journalists were detained, or why they were released," the two organisations said in their letter. The Association of Eritrean Journalists in Exile groups about 50 Eritrean news media workers who have found asylum abroad.
Eritrea is still the only country in Africa, and one of the very few in the world, to have no privately-owned news media. The state-owned media, which are closely controlled by the regime, are the only source of news. Only three foreign news media, the BBC, AFP and Deutsche Welle, now have correspondents in the country, and they cannot work freely or safely.
The letter was sent to President Afeworki less than one month before the second anniversary of a crackdown on Eritrea’s news media in which the government, on 18 September 2001, ordered the closure of all the privately-owned newspapers and launched an unprecedented wave of arrests of Eritrean journalists. Most of the 15 still detained two years later were arrested in the latter half of September 2001.
Reporters Without Borders and the Association of Eritrean Journalists in Exile called again for the release of all journalists still detained, pointing out that the United Nations views imprisonment for the peaceful expression of opinion as a serious violation of human rights. They also criticised the way the authorities use national service as a weapon against the news media. The government often justifies the imprisonment of journalists by claiming, against all evidence, that they failed to do their military service.
The most recent case was the arrest, on 8 July of 2003, of the Voice of America’s local stringer Akhlilu Solomon, who was reportedly taken to a military camp on the official grounds that he had to do his national service. The Voice of America said Solomon was taken away because of a report portraying the distress of the families of soldiers.
Zemenfes Haile, former editor and co-founder of Tsigenay, was arrested at the end of 1999 by the authorities, who accused him of not doing his service. According to the latest information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, he was released a few weeks later.
Simret Seyoum, managing editor of the independent weekly Setit, was arrested on 7 January 2002 near the Sudanese border as he was trying to flee. Without any explanation ever being provided by the authorities, he was released a year later on 9 January 2003. Biniam Haile, a reporter with the government newspaper Hadas Eritrea was held for a few weeks in November 2001 and was then released. He is now working for his newspaper again.
It has now emerged that Selamyinghes Beyene of Meqaleh, who was thought to be detained, was never arrested. According to the authorities, he is supposed to be doing his national service.