Imprisoned Eritrean journalist awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom

October 13, 2011

by Alexandra Waldhorn

Dawit Isaak, who left Sweden for Eritrea to help build the country’s independent press — and was imprisoned for his efforts – has been awarded the 50th anniversary Golden Pen of Freedom, the annual press freedom prize of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

For the past 10 years, Isaak has languished behind bars, most of it incommunicado. There has been no news on his whereabouts since 2005.

“With no news we still don’t know if he is alive today,” says Erik Bjerager, President of the World Editors Forum during the award ceremony.

Following the country’s independence in 1991, Isaak gave up the freedoms offered to him in Sweden and returned to Eritrea to co-found Setit, the country’s first independent newspaper. The paper rose to national prominence for exposing government corruption. But in 2001, the government closed it following a major clampdown on dissent, which obliterated press freedom, suspended civil liberties, and sent scores of journalists to prison.

“Dawit Isaak should have been a prominent, celebrated public figure for his work helping to build the new, desperately poor country in the horn of Africa,” says Bjerager. “Instead, he was rewarded by being jailed without charge for the past 10 years. His family has been barred from visiting and he has disappeared into the silence of the notorious Eritrean prison system.”

In one of the Setit’s final open letters, the editors declared: “People can tolerate hunger and other problems for a long time, but they can not tolerate the absence of good administration and justice.”

There is still no independent media in Eritrea and the country ranks last on the Reporters Without Borders “World Press Freedom Index.”

WAN-IFRA has presented the Golden Pen of Freedom since 1961 to recognise the outstanding action, in writing or deed, of an individual, group or institution in the cause of press freedom. Esayas Isaak, who spearheads the ‘Free Dawit’ campaign for the freedom of his brother, accepts the award on his behalf.

In presenting the award, WAN-IFRA again called on Eritrean authorities to immediately release Isaak and all other imprisoned journalists and editors in Eritrea, and for the international community to pressure the Eritrean government into doing so.

In a controversial Swedish interview in 2009, President Isaias Afewerki made it clear that Dawit Isaak’s status as a dual citizen of Sweden was of little consequence and that there were no plans to honour repeated Swedish requests to free him. “We will not have any trial and we will not free him,” he says. “We know how to handle his kind.”

In presenting the Golden Pen of Freedom, WEF President Erik Bjerager responds to President Afewerki: “We declare that we are all ‘his kind.'”


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