When people from across the globe gather on May 3 to recognize World Press Freedom Day in Jakarta, Indonesia, the recipient of the top prize won’t be there. He will be spending his 16th year in a secret prison in Eritrea.
The awardee, Dawit Isaak, is an Eritrean-born Swedish journalist and author who worked at Setit, one of Eritrea’s now-defunct independent newspapers. He was arrested during a government crackdown in September 2001 that shut down newspapers and jailed journalists.
Isaak has not been seen or heard from for at least a decade, despite repeated requests from his family and the Swedish government.
“I am happy that he is nominated for this award, but I also feel sad because it would be good if he received this award himself,” said his daughter Betlehem Isaak, who will be accepting the prize on his behalf.
His brother, Esayas Isaak, will accompany her to accept the award. He said that their aim is to make sure that Dawit Isaak is given the award himself sometime soon.
Esayas says he and his niece worry about Dawit's condition. “We are concerned that we are not aware of his whereabouts and his situation,” he said, speaking to VOA Tigrigna Service.
Isaak was selected unanimously by an international jury of media professionals to receive the 2017 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. The award is named for a Colombian journalist who was assassinated in front of his offices in 1986. The award includes a prize of $25,000.
“He [Isaak] represents determination, courage. He is also a figure of democracy and freedom of expression and I think he is really someone who has given his life for his values, universal values, that are freedom of expression and democracy,” said Sylvie Coudray of UNESCO.
Isaak and other arrested journalists have never been formally tried or charged. Eritrean President Isayas Afwerki has been asked about Isaak’s status multiple times and has referred to him obliquely as an agent of foreign powers and the CIA.
Never tried or released
In a 2009 interview he claimed not to know where Isaak was being held, but said the journalist will never be tried or released.
Despite the lack of information, friends and advocates hold out hope that Isaak remains alive. In 2016, Eritrean Foreign Affairs Minister Osman Saleh said he was still living, and a prisoner released about a year ago said he had seen Isaak during his 13 years in various Eritrean jails, although he added, "We didn’t see much of him since 2007."
Martin Schibbye, a Swedish journalist who was imprisoned in Ethiopia, was allowed to visit Eritrea with a press visa last year. He tried unsuccessfully to get information about Isaak’s location and health.
“I think until we are presented with a body, we have to assume that he's alive,” he said. “There are examples of people who spend decades in prison, and when you're in prison and you know why you are there, that gives you a certain strength and energy to survive even the most terrible difficult conditions.”
Aaron Berhane, a former colleague of Isaak who now resides in Canada, said the award sends a message to the Eritrean government that Isaak and other imprisoned journalists will not be forgotten.
“It is a slap in the face to the regime in Eritrea because the regime thinks that it has stifled freedom of the press by imprisoning the journalists physically. But this is a reminder that their spirit and influence is spreading globally and for that I am extremely happy and proud,” he told VOA’s Tigrigna Service.