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Local Amnesty International chapter fights for 'incommunicado' reporter

To be sure, Eritrean journalist Fesshaye "Joshua" Yohannes has led an interesting life. That is, if he is still alive.

Five years ago, exactly a week after terrorists slammed hijacked airliners into history books, Yohannes was arrested by the government of his East African nation, along with nine other leading journalists in the war-torn country of Eritrea.

No charges were filed, and no reasons were given as to why Yohannes, a married father of three, as well as a poet, playwright, and director of an amateur cultural dance troupe, was being detained.

Apparently, Yohannes had been found "guilty" of being the co-editor and co-founder of the weekly newspaper Setit, the largest circulation newspaper in Eritrea, which dared to print open letters to the government demanding a civilized discussion of basic democratic ideals and even more basic human rights.

As a result, Yohannes has attracted some influential attention, not the least of which comes from Amnesty International (AI), the internationally-recognized human rights organization.

In honor of Worldwide Press Freedom Day on Wednesday, May 3, AI chapters throughout the Southeast have "adopted" Yohannes and are trying to raise awareness about his plight, which was perhaps drowned out by the events of Sept. 11.

Emily Grenesko, who serves as a "prisoner of conscience coordinator" for a local AI chapter that meets downtown, is hoping that people throughout the Lowcountry will be inspired to join her organization's letter-writing campaign to pressure Eritrean government officials to release Yohannes.

"Initially, his family knew where he was being kept and were allowed to bring him food from home, but not allowed personal contact," says Grenesko, who works in a brain stimulation lab at MUSC. "But after he and the other jailed journalists began a hunger strike, they disappeared. No one knows for sure if he is even alive anymore."

The 10 journalists began their hunger strike on March 31, 2002.

AI has an "idea" of where Yohannes might be being held, and sends correspondence to that site. But there hasn't been a single response for over four years.

"From what I hear from Amnesty International, we don't think he is dead; otherwise, I don't think the entire Southeast would be focusing on him now," says Grenesko.

Eritrea must have been a hell of a place to be an independent journalist in the first part of this new millennia.

After a two-year border war with Ethiopia, which the former Italian colony had broken away from in the early '90s, Eritrea's government postponed the formation of more than one political party, banned religious groups from engaging in political activities, and cracked down on journalists with its already restrictive 1996 Press Law, according to AI.

The Press Law already limited who could own and publish a paper and put heavy sedition laws in place, apparently to curtail unwanted criticism of the government. The Eritrean government had a history of jailing reporters without charging them.

In 1997, it jailed a soldier-turned-reporter who had gone on to work for a French press agency for reporting something the president of the country did not agree with. The reporter was later freed.

Since the arrest of Yohannes and the other nine journalists, there have been a slew of similar detentions, with many reporters, editors, and publishers fleeing the country or renouncing their criticisms of the standing government.

"What rights we have here, that are just given to us, aren't even possible in Eritrea," says Grenesko, who, along with others across the nation, has posed for protest pictures wearing a gag across her mouth.

Letter-writing campaigns, though they may seem weak compared to an illegal jailing, do work, according to Paul Hoffman, a Los Angeles-based civil rights attorney who also serves on AI's nine-member International Executive Committee.

"They work in at least two different ways; first, letter-writing campaigns have led to releases, sometimes in a relatively short time and sometimes over the long haul," says Hoffman, who chaired AI's board from 1997-99. "Of course, it is sometimes difficult to identify any one source of pressure as the determining factor, but we have lots of experience over the years that indicates it does matter.

"The second way is that prisoners become aware of the campaigns through their families or sometimes because of better treatment they receive in prison," says Hoffman, who once worked on behalf of a Sudanese professor who was threatened with the death penalty for his beliefs and now periodically teaches with him at Oxford University. "I have spoken to many former POCs over the years who have said this." 

Hoffman adds that the hope that these campaigns gives to families and the colleagues of prisoners should not be underestimated.

And neither should the value of a free press.

Those wishing to contact the local Amnesty International chapter, learn more about Yohannes' arrest, or to download a list of Eritrean officials to write to, can do so at www.aicharleston.com.


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