Eritrean-born journalist Dawit Isaak
has been jailed and detained without trial since 2001, when Asmara banned
independent newspapers in a crackdown on the media. On Monday, the editors of
four major papers in Sweden, where Isaak fled as a refugee in 1987, delivered a
petition bearing 200-thousand Swedish signatures to the Eritrean embassy in
Stockholm, calling for Isaak's release.
Isaak was writing for an Eritrean paper at the time of his arrest,
speaking out for greater press freedom in his country of birth. International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
General Secretary Aidan White explains that advocacy groups are seeking to focus attention on the case to persuade
Asmara to end its media crackdown and allow society to become more open to
freedom of expression.
have a government here which appears to be immune to international pressure,
absolutely resistant to notions of appeal for justice and fair play. And in this instance, we feel very strongly
that Dawit Isaak is being used as an instrument of defiant foreign policy by
the Eritrean authorities. But we hope
very much that we can have a new dialogue with the Eritrean authorities in
which it will be possible to discuss whether or not journalists and other
people in civil society, people who are striving to promote a sense of
democracy, should be able to express themselves. So we in the IFJ have been working with our
Swedish colleagues about whether or not we can visit Eritrea as a possibility
for opening up a new dialogue," he said.
other journalists have also been unduly detained in Eritrean prisons, and world
press groups estimate that at least four others have died there. White says Asmara's detached lack of response
to urgent inquiries about the jailings has prompted the journalism watchdog
groups to seek international diplomatic intervention.
problem is that there is very little cooperation from the authorities in
gaining access to these journalists.
That's why we actually think that it's very important to try to use
diplomatic means to create the circumstances for a new and fresh dialogue with
the authorities. Because there is an obstinateness on the part of the
authorities to engage in dialogue, we are very pessimistic about the
outcome. We have asked for the European
Union, the United Nations Secretary General to intervene with the Eritrean
authorities to try to get them to recognize that having discussions about the
rights of journalists, and in particular about the rights of these individuals,
is actually the correct way to address this problem," he explained.
overall treatment of journalists, currently cited at 173rd by the
Paris based watchdog group Reporters without Borders, is inevitably ranked last
in the world every year, and Sweden's five-week petition campaign this year was
timed strategically to end one day after Sunday's annual observance of World
Press Freedom Day. Aidan White of the
Brussels-based IFJ sees many difficulties ahead to transform freedom of the
press in a war-plagued society like Eritrea's that he says has faced internal
discontent for such a long period of time.
one's saying that Eritrea is an easy beat for journalists. Of course, it's not. It's a country which faces tremendous
problems of poverty, social dislocation, and also tremendous problems regarding
the right of people to be able to express themselves and engage in public life,
and so on. So it's not easy. But it's all too easy just to sort of say,
'Eritrea, the country which is last, we can do nothing about it.' We have to constantly say to the government
and the authorities that they have responsibilities, they have power, and they
have the capacity to change the direction in which the country not only is
perceived by the outside world, but also the direction in which the country is
going," he argued.
press freedom advocates, lifting the media ban requires Eritrean officials to
acknowledge that they have an important, positive role to play as a regional
power and as a significant force on the continent of Africa. White suggests that if those in power
earnestly pursue these values for the good of the country, then relaxing the
press restrictions and limits on expression will follow and contribute to
improving Eritrea's position.
important for Eritrea and Eritrean authorities to remove themselves from the
isolation in which they are presently placed.
They need very much to take action to open up the society, to create
conditions not just for the prosperous development of its people. They need to create conditions for democracy and
free expression, and they can begin that process by immediately lifting the
censures and censorship and control that exists on the media and by releasing
those journalists who have been imprisoned for no other crime than actually
just practicing their own profession and doing the sort of job that hundreds
and thousands of journalists just do the world over without penalty and without
fear," he urged.
Dawit Isaak holds Swedish citizenship
as the result of his 1987 sojourn there as a war refugee.