World Press Freedom Day
3 May 2017 – In 2017 Eritrea continues to be one of the worst jailers of writers and dissident voices, earning the dubious honour of the most censored country in the world in 2015. PEN International is aware of at least 17 journalists currently held incommunicado or in circumstances amounting to enforced disappearance, some of whom are believed to have died in the appalling conditions of Eritrean prisons. Their deaths – which have not been officially confirmed – have been attributed to harsh conditions and lack of medical attention. The Foreign Minister of Eritrea claimed in an interview with Radio France Internationale in June 2016 that all of the journalists and politicians arrested in wide-spread crackdown on dissent in 2001 are alive, including Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak, though no proof has been provided. In the same interview, the foreign minister said that these men would be tried ‘when the government decides’ and that they are ‘political prisoners.’
Isaak – who holds Swedish citizenship after spending a number of years in the country during the Eritrean war of independence and the subsequent border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia – is one of many journalists detained incommunicado. Isaak was arrested alongside other journalists as part of the September 2001 crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press. His case is emblematic of the dire situation facing journalists in the country, who have been subjected to systematic arbitrary arrests, intimidations, and enforced disappearances over the years.
On World Press Freedom Day, PEN International renews its calls on the Eritrean authorities to release immediately and unconditionally all journalists detained incommunicado and without trial, including Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak, who has been awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2017. Isaak will receive the award during celebrations for World Press Freedom day on 3 May 2017, which will mark his 5701 day behind bars.
Take Action: Share on Facebook, Twitter and other social media
Write a letter to the authorities:
- Protesting the detention of Dawit Isaak on politically motivated grounds and without known charges or trial since 2001;
- Urging the Eritrean authorities to immediately disclose the whereabouts of Dawit Isaak and other detained journalists and release them immediately and unconditionally;
- Expressing concern for Isaak’s health as detainees are believed to have suffered ill treatment, probably torture and lack of access to medical care, as highlighted by the reported deaths of some of the journalists
Send appeals to:
His Excellency, Isaias Afewerki
Office of the President,
Fax: + 2911 125123
Minister of Information
Hon. Yemane Gebremeskel
P.O. Box 242
+291 124 847
Please send a copy of appeals to the diplomatic representative for Eritrea in your country if possible. Details of some Eritrean embassies can be found here.
Publicity & social media
PEN members are encouraged to share this on social media.
- Dawit Isaak & other journos remain detained incommunicado in #Eritrea #freedawitisaak [add link to action paper]
- Free Expression is not a crime, it is a human right #Eritrea – free all imprisoned journalists #WPFD2017 [add link to action paper]
Please keep us informed of any action you take, including any responses you receive from the authorities.
Crackdown on dissent
In September 2001, the Eritrean government embarked upon a campaign to silence its critics, arresting opposition politicians, students and many journalists. In May 2001, 15 dissident members (known as the G-15) of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (the current ruling party in Eritrea) published an open letter in which they denounced the President’s abuse of power and presented his actions as “illegal and unconstitutional”. Following the publication of the letter as well as interviews and articles related to the open letter published in the independent newspapers, all dissidents were detained, including 11 members of the G15, who were arrested in Asmara on 18 and 19 September 2001 and accused of crimes against national security and sovereignty. Private newspapers were also banned, with 10 journalists arrested in September 2001 and another two in October 2001. It is unknown whether charges have been brought against them and even if any trial has taken place and there is little official information of their whereabouts and well-being.
The authorities have reportedly claimed that the journalists have been sent to carry out their national service and that the detentions were necessary for the preservation of national unity or due to the newspaper’s lack of compliance with media licenses. In various media interviews over the years, President Isaias Afewerki has referred to the journalists as ‘spies’ in the pay of the CIA. In June 2016, the foreign minister of Eritrea referred to the men arrested in 2001 as ‘political prisoners’. Political commentators have suggested that the media crackdown was an attempt to stamp out criticism of the Eritrean government’s treatment of students and political dissenters, and of its conflict with Ethiopia.
Dawit Isaak (b. 1964), is one of the journalists arrested as part of the 2001 crackdown. Isaak is a Swedish-Eritrean journalist, playwright, poet, co-owner of ሰቲት (Setit), and one of the co-founders of Shewit Children’s Theatre. Isaak has been detained incommunicado since September 2001. Author of the book (in verses) ባና፤ ታሪኽ ፍቕሪ–ሙሴን ማናን (1988) (Bana: The Affair of Mussie and Mana), Isaac spent a number of years in Sweden during the Eritrean war of independence (1961-1991) and the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia. He returned to his home country after independence and he was actively engaged in different cultural and literary activities and the media. In addition to his later contributions as a journalist in Setit, Isaak is also widely remembered for the short story “እተን ሰላሳ ሽሕ” (The thirtythousand) that was serialized in the national radio in the early days of independence. Isaak was taken into custody with other independent journalists; he was briefly released for a few days in 2005, but taken back to an undisclosed location shortly afterwards and he has not been heard from since.
Isaac reportedly suffers from a diabetic condition that requires medical supervision. In April 2002, it was reported that Isaac had been hospitalized suffering from injuries sustained through his torture. In January 2009, he was reportedly transferred from prison to an Air Force hospital in Asmara as a result of serious illness but was later returned to prison.
In addition to the UNESCO award which he received for his “courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression”, he has also been bestowed the Golden Pen of Freedom award, the Kurt-Tucholsky-Prize, and the Anna Politkovskaya award, among others. Dawit Isaak is an Honorary Member of PEN American Center, PEN Canada, Finnish PEN, Swedish PEN and PEN Eritrea in Exile and many PEN Centres have campaigned on his behalf.
The other journalists detained in September 2001 are as follows:
Said Abdelkadir; Yousif Mohammed Ali; Amanuel Asrat; Temesegen Ghebereyesus; Matheos Habteab; Dawit Habtemichael; Medhanie Haile; Fessaha “Joshua” Yohannes; Seyoum Tsehaye
Journalists detained in October 2001, shortly after the arrest of their colleagues in September 2001:
Idris Said Aba’Are; Sahle “Wedi-Itay” Tseazagab:
For further information about the journalists detained during the 2001 crackdown, as well as those detained at later dates, see PEN’s 2015 case list.
Take Action: 15 years on, journalist & author Dawit Isaak remains detained incommunicado in Eritrea
World Poetry Day 2017: Take Action for Amanuel Asrat
Free Dawit campaign page: http://www.freedawit.com/