Reporters Without Borders today made a new appeal to the Eritrean government to free 14 of the country’s leading journalists imprisoned for the past two years and allow the independent media, which were all shut down in September 2001, to reopen at once.
The press freedom organisation said the unique situation meant Eritreans had only had official news for two years, plus any foreign radio stations they could tune in to. The closures and arrests have made Eritrea the sole country in Africa and one of the very few in the world where only the government media is allowed.
Eritrea is also the biggest prison for journalists in Africa. The authorities have given no information about where the 14 are imprisoned or what their conditions of detention are. Government ministers and members of the ruling party have several times called them "traitors" but none has been charged with any crime.
The government ordered the closure of all privately-owned publications on 18 September 2001 and over the next few days at least 10 of their journalists were arrested and taken to the main police station in Asmara, the capital.
They were Yusuf Mohamed Ali, editor of Tsigenay; Mattewos Habteab, editor of Meqaleh; Dawit Habtemichael, his deputy; Medhanie Haile (deputy editor) and Temesgen Gebreyesus (board member) of Keste Debena; Emanuel Asrat, editor of Zemen; Dawit Isaac and Fessehaye Yohannes, of the newspaper Setit; Said Abdulkader, of the magazine Admas, and a freelance photographer, Seyoum Tsehaye.
The 10 began a hunger-strike on 31 March 2002 and in a letter smuggled out of jail said they were protesting against their illegal imprisonment and demanding their "right to justice" and a trial by a "fair and independent court." They were transferred to an unknown place of detention on 3 April.
In January and February 2002, three journalists from the government media were arrested: Hamid Mohamed Said and Saidia Ahmed, of the government TV station Eri-TV and Saleh al-Jezaeeri, of the government radio station Voice of the Broad Masses. No reason was given.
Another journalist, Akhlilu Solomon, the local stringer for Voice of America, was arrested at his home on 8 July 2003. Officials said he had been taken to a military camp to do his compulsory national service. But VOA noted he had already done part of it and been exempted from the rest on medical grounds.