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Gulag for journalists
By abdulaziz Mohamed yasin
Six years after Eritrean authorities launched a massive crackdown on independent journalists and media outlets, poet and playwright Fessehaye "Joshua" Yohannes, who was a journalist with the now-banned weekly Setit, died in detention on 11 January according to Reporters Without Borders.
Eritrea is the fourth leading jailer of journalists in the world after China, Cuba and Ethiopia. Most of the 13 journalists were swept up in a crackdown against opposition leaders and the independent press as part of a drive to suppress political dissent ahead of scheduled elections, which the Government subsequently cancelled without explanation.
Since the September 2001 crackdown, there have been no independent newspapers or magazines published. For news, the population has to rely on Soviet-style government media and a few foreign radio stations whose signals can only be received in the capital, Asmara.
The death of Fessehaye Yohannes would be an appalling tragedy, one made all the more unbearable by the accommodating attitude of European governments towards Eritrea," Reporters Without Borders said. "This regime cannot be treated in a normal way as it is responsible for the disappearance and imprisonment of the best of its citizens. Firm demands are now needed."
The press freedom organisation added: "The Eritrean government must prove to us that Joshua did not die or, at the very least, it should hand over his body to his wife and two sons. It should prove to us that journalists Medhanie Haile, Said Abdulkader and Yusuf Mohamed Ali are still alive, contrary to the reports we have received of their deaths. And it should tell us where it has imprisoned the journalists who are being held incommunicado, and explain the crimes it has committed with complete impunity since 2001."
Fessehaye was paralysed in one hand and had been walking with difficulty for years. He reportedly succumbed to the extremely harsh conditions in which he had been held since his arrest in September 2001. After being held at an Asmara police station and an underground prison and after spells in the Halibet and Sembel hospitals in Asmara, he was reportedly taken to a prison camp at Eiraeiro, in the Northern Red Sea desert province. According to the information received by Reporters Without Borders, he was being held in cell No. 18 of this camp, where at least 62 political prisoners are being held in complete isolation and in inhumane conditions, guarded by about 100 soldiers of the 32nd division.
On the basis of information from credible sources, Reporters Without Borders reported last November that Said Abdulkader, co-founder and editor of the weekly Admas, Medhanie Haile, co-founder and deputy editor of the weekly Keste Debena, and Yusuf Mohamed Ali, the editor of the weekly Tsigenay, were among the nine prisoners who had died in this prison camp in the course of 2005 and 2006. The officer in charge of the Eiraeiro camp is Lt. Col. Isaac "Wedi Hakim" Araia, the former commander of the 29th division's 2nd brigade, who replaced Maj. Gen. Gerezghiher "Wuchu" Andemariam.
Born on 19 September 1958, Fessehaye was married and had two sons, now aged five and six. A veteran of the independence war against Ethiopia , he was a leading figure in political and media circles. He led a dance and theatre troupe. He had a career as a poet and playwright. And he helped found Setit, which was Eritrea's most popular weekly until the September 2001 crackdown on the media.
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