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.
"We 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.
Nine 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.
"The 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.
Eritrea's 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.
"No 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.
For 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.
"It's 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.