Dark September 2001: Eritrea shuts down private press

On 18 September 2001, with world attention still dominated by the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, the Eritrean government seized the moment to move decisively toward totalitarian control. President Isaias Afeworki ordered the internal security agency into action against the reformist wing of the ruling party, which had been demanding democratic reforms. Influential ministers and generals, former companions in arms of the onetime hero of the liberation war against Ethiopia, were thrown into prison.

Overnight, this country in the Horn of Africa became one of very few in the world without private media. The handful of independent newspapers in the capital city of Asmara – Setit, Meqaleh, Keste Debena, Xemen, Tsigenay – were closed. Owners and top editors were arrested. Along with hundreds of political and military figures, 11 journalists were caught in raids or gave themselves up. They were all incarcerated, some of them in underground cells.

Among them were two cofounders of Setit, one of the country’s most influential dailies: poet, playwright and theatre director Fessehaye “Joshua” Yohannes, and the celebrated Swedish-Eritrean poet and journalist Dawit Isaac. Yohannes, unable to bear the inhuman conditions of imprisonment, committed suicide in his cell in 2003. Isaac remains in solitary confinement – 11 years after his arrest – without ever having gone to trial.

And so Eritrea became Africa’s biggest prison for journalists, with at least 30 of them kept behind bars.

In the wake of the September 2001 onslaught, all criticism of the regime has been sanctioned as “national security threat.” The country’s media are reduced to official organs, relaying the government’s belligerent and ultranationalist rhetoric. Under the tight control of Information Minister Ali Abdu, himself under orders of all-powerful president Afeworki, the employees of Eri-TV public television, of radio Dimtsi Hafash (Voice of the Masses), and of Hadas Eritrea function as no more than zealous government propagandists.

In opposition to this relentless censorship, which deprives the Eritrean people of their right to reliable, balanced and independent news, exiled Eritrean journalists have launched Radio Erena (Our Eritrea). Based in Paris, supported by Reporters Without Borders, the stateion broadcasts daily over the air, as well as by internet for the country’s diaspora. It has become the only source of independent news in the national language for Eritreans who remain in their country.

The documents published here include: An article from one of the last editions of Setit; The government communiqué of 19 September 200, published in the official daily, Hadas Eritrea, announcing suspension of the privately owned press “pending further order.”

In this downloadable mp3 file, hear Biniam Simon, Radio Erena editor in chief, reading the government communiqué of 19 September 2001 published in Hadas Eritrea, announcing the suspension of the private press “pending further order.”


Private newspapers have shown opposition towards the country's and press laws. They have also rejected repeated reminders and opportunity to operate within the law. As a result, the Eritrean government has decided that they are to temporarily stop operation as of 18 September 2001. The Eritrean government recognises the importance of a free and responsible press in the development of our country. In order to encourage the progress of the press, it had issued licences which included licences issued to newspapers that failed to meet the criteria set by press law. However, private newspapers have failed to abide by the press law. They have breached regulations and have remained in circulation while challenging the benefits and unity of the nation. This experience does not encourage a productive and advanced press culture. Instead, it misleads and ruins the long term development of press in our country. The Eritrean government has given encouragement and shown great tolerance in hope that private newspapers, in time and with experience would adhere to the law and press code of conduct and develop it into a platform for information, views and dialogue. Ignoring such a positive ambition and tolerance has not been of any benefit. Although our country has been through such a discouraging experience, the Eritrean government is still devoted to the development of free, responsible and powerful press. As a result, it will review past experience and issue licences to newspapers that adhere to press law.

11th Year No. 13
Wednesday 19 September 2001


During an interview with Setit Newspaper, Minister of Fish Resources Mr Petros Solomon stated "I do not wish to be elected or become a candidate for a political post in the future government." Mr Petros also stated that he is prepared to defend and serve his country whenever needed. He explained that the article mentioned is about achieving a secure future and transitional route towards a permanent government and not about individual gains. His answer to a question about the cause of current differences was "This view has no association with the 3rd attack." He explains the existence of the process of taking action in time, introducing a proactive system of operation, liberty and some level of control over judges and law makers in past congress meetings. Mr Petros also mentioned the decrease in the number of official government meetings. [TEXT MISSING] He states "... the way we handled the peace process was not satisfactory. This is where the questions and views reappear.’ Mr Petros explained that all will share the burden of past mistakes equally. "We will not cleanse ourselves from fault and blame others." Mr Petros concluded by stating that there is no problem that can't be solved and explained "it's denying the existence of problems, the inability to solve it and lack of tolerance". He continued to express his hope by saying "I urge the President to call and conduct a meeting to resolve this matter ". Detailed content on page 3

Friday 8 June 2001


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