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Fesshaye Yohannes

BY Liz Harper  January 12, 2003 at 5:20 PM EST

The co-founder of the popular Eritrean weekly newspaper Setit, Fesshaye, also known as Joshua, was the only one of this year’s recipients absentfrom the awards ceremony in New York City. He has been imprisoned since September 2001, when he was arrested along with nine other independent journalists as part of the government’s massive crackdown on political dissent.

Fesshaye YohannesThe 48-year-old Fesshaye founded Setit, one of Eritrea’s first independent newspapers, in 1994. The paper quickly became the country’s largest-circulation newspaper, covering social problems including poverty, prostitution and the government’s treatment of handicapped war veterans.

Shortly before his arrest more than a year ago, Setit published an open letter to Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki questioning what it called his increasingly undemocratic style of government.

“People can tolerate hunger and other problems for a long time, but they can’t tolerate the absence of good administration and justice,” the letter said.

Nine days later, authorities shut down all independent and privately owned newspapers for allegedly threatening state security and “jeopardizing national unity.”

At least ten journalists, including Fesshaye, were arrested and reprimanded for publishing interviews with political figures and others calling for democratic reforms. That same day, authorities also arrested dissident political leaders, who had become publicly critical of what they called the president’s “unconstitutional” actions, and demanded “more democracy” for Eritrea.

In May, Fesshaye and his colleagues staged a hunger strike in an effort to obtain a court hearing. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, government officials instead transferred the journalists to an unknown location; they have not been heard from since.

Setit’s managing editor, Simret Seyoum, has also been held secretly after he was caught trying to flee the country to neighboring Sudan in January 2002, CPJ reports.

Several dozen Eritrean journalists have escaped the country in recent years to avoid government reprisals. The few resident foreign correspondents have left the country because they could no longer operate freely and in complete safety.

At least 18 journalists, including Fesshaye, are being held at undisclosed locations in Eritrea, according to CPJ and Reporters Without Borders, a French media watchdog group.

Eritrea is the only country in Africa — and one of the few countries in the world — without a privately-owned press.