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Bottom of the Class: Eritrea’s Silent Shame

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Bottom of the Class: Eritrea’s Silent Shame

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Aspiring independent journalists in any war-ravaged, poverty-stricken country face a daunting task. If you add famine, military dictatorship, and the fact that the particular country in question is Eritrea, this task becomes nigh on impossible. In such a context the achievements of Dawit Isaak, co-founder of the country’s first independent newspaper and laureate of the 2011 WAN-IFRA Golden Pen of Freedom, are all the more remarkable.


In 1987, Mr Isaak, - a celebrated journalist, writer and playwright - fled his native Eritrea and sought refugee status in Sweden. Despite gaining Swedish citizenship, he made the decision to return to Eritrea following the cessation in 1993 of the bloody 32-year conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia. Eager to develop the country's independent press, Mr Isaak co-founded Setit, the nation’s first independent newspaper, which would rise to national prominence as a professional publication and gain a reputation for investigative reporting that often focused on abuse of power by the government.

Understanding that Eritrea is as bad as it gets when it comes to press freedom requires a little context in order to fully appreciate the horrendous situation faced by Mr Isaak and countless other independent media professionals. In the latest Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ‘World Press Freedom Index’ Eritrea comes in bottom of the class, falling below even the usual suspects when it comes to state violations of freedom of expression. When one outdoes the likes of North Korea, Iran and Burma, countries that hold a virtual monopoly over the international headlines regarding the suppression of human rights, it is safe to say that things are well and truly on the slide. Considering 2010 marks the fourth year running that Eritrea finds itself ignominiously bottom of the pile, there is an urgent need for the international media spotlight to at last shine into the darkened corners of this failed state.

Simply put, there is no independent media in Eritrea; in September 2001, as the world’s attention fell on the terrorist attacks in the USA, the Eritrean government quietly closed the country’s private press under the pretext that it “endangered national security”. In May of the same year, a group of 15 cabinet members (prominent reformist politicians later dubbed the G-15) had published an open letter to the government demanding democratic reform and a thorough investigation of the events leading up to Eritrea's recurring war with Ethiopia. (In 1998, conflict had been reignited over a border dispute that culminated in a UN-controlled security zone being established to separate the two countries). The G-15 letter was published by the independent press, most notably by Mr Isaak's paper, which also went on to publish a series of similar open letters to president Isaias Afeworki demanding sweeping democratic reforms. The government acted in swift retaliation, and by the end of September had effectively suspended all civil liberties in Eritrea.

Numerous journalists were arrested and imprisoned, amongst them Mr Isaak. To date, none have been formally charged or tried and they have all been branded traitors, accused of receiving financial aid from abroad - an act of criminal treason according to Eritrean press laws. Reports have surfaced that four of the journalists detained in 2001 have since died in prison. To this day, the whereabouts of Mr Isaak remain unknown.

Arrested Development

In a country in which two-thirds of the total 5.2 million population receives food aid, where there are more people in the army than make up the entire workforce, there remains a critical need for an independent press to push the issues, provide transparency and stimulate the development debate. President Afewerki, who was elected in 1993 following the end of the country’s bitter war for independence, continues to strengthen his own position as Eritrea plummets down international development indexes. Planned presidential elections in 1997 never occurred, and the country has since been ruled as an ever-restrictive one-party state whose people are increasingly isolated from the outside world.

Concern for Mr Isaak has led the government of Sweden and the Swedish media community to undertake numerous efforts to advocate for his release, without any success. The Eritrean government has made it clear that his status as a dual citizen of Sweden is of little consequence, a position reflected in public statements made by president Afewerki in May 2009 in which he announced, "To me, Sweden is irrelevant. The Swedish government has nothing to do with us."

A controversial Swedish interview with the president drew the attention of human rights watchdog organisations when he declared unceremoniously that there were no plans to release Mr Isaak nor to conduct a trial in which the journalist would be formally charged. The interview, which was broadcast on 26 May 2009, stirred international controversy when the Eritrean president dismissed the issue of Mr Isaak's imprisonment altogether, stating without qualm, "We will not have any trial and we will not free him. We know how to handle his kind."

Mr Isaak’s brother, Esayas, also exiled in Sweden, leads the charge on the nine-year campaign to ‘Free Dawit’. He has become one of the lone voices within the Eritrean exiled community to denounce the government and call for change. “Sometimes I feel very alone because I am the only one to speak out, but I know others are afraid,” he said in a frank recent conversation with WAN-IFRA.

Meanwhile, The Swedish Media Publishers' Association and many of their members have been actively engaged in the campaign to free Mr Isaak. “To be a good journalist without compromise requires great courage, and Dawit Isaak is a role model and inspiration to many," said Tomas Brunegard, CEO of the Stampen Group and chair of The Swedish Media Publishers' Association. The build-up of support has not gone unnoticed by his brother. “They have started to write about him everyday, and this is good for Dawit”.

In one of the final open letters published before Setit was silenced indefinitely, the newspaper declared, "People can tolerate hunger and other problems for a long time, but they can't tolerate the absence of good administration and justice." Esayas Isaak, recalling the last meal he ate with his brother before he left for Eritrea for the final time, remembers the conviction that penetrated their conversation about his return to the country he loved. “’We’re going to bring democracy to Eritrea’, he said. Of course, he could have stayed here… but he had the courage to go there and try to make a change.”

Nine years and counting, for Dawit Isaak and all those committed to human rights in Eritrea, this change cannot come soon enough.

Visit the Dawit Isaak campain website.

Read the RSF World Press Freedom Index.



Andrew Heslop's picture

Andrew Heslop


2011-10-13 21:42

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The Golden Pen of Freedom is WAN-IFRA's annual award recognising individuals or organisations that have made an outstanding contribution to the defence and promotion of press freedom. Read more ...