- Eritrean authorities, as they approach the 10th anniversary of Eritrea's independence on 24 May, were today asked 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.
The Paris-based press freedom defenders Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) today urged the Eritrean government to finally release the bulk of the country's representatives of the independent press, in jail since September 2001.
- We would like to remind you that, according to the UN, imprisonment as a punishment for the peaceful expression of opinion constitutes a serious violation of human rights, RSF Secretary-General Robert Ménard said in a letter to Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki. "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 RSF 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.
RSF today states it believes it "is unacceptable that the authorities of a country can, with full impunity, simply deprive its people of the right to be informed." According to the group, 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 has never been announced, but most of them had interviewed or quoted the President's critics.
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, RSF reports. Two other journalists, Selamyinghes Beyene of Meqaleh and Binyam Haile of Haddas Eritrea, were also reportedly detained in the autumn of 2001.
Also 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.
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