What a Journalist Jailed For 20 Years Reveals About the Global Assault on Independent Media
2001 saw the government of Eritrea close down independent presses. Dawit Isaak (Swedish-Eritrean journalist), was a prolific writer who is a courageous journalist. Installit, Eritrea’s first independent newspaper, was arbitrarily detained, held incommunicado, and denied access to family, consular assistance, and the right to counsel—effectively, an enforced disappearance. The “crime”? Installit had published an open letter calling for democratic reform signed by fifteen members of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s government.
Isaak along with his fellow journalists are among the most detained journalists today. Eleven of the open letter’s signatories were detained along with them, and some have already died in prison. No independent media has operated in Eritrea since Isaak’s arrest. Since Isaak’s arrest, Eritrea has been ranked last in 180 countries by the World Press Freedom Index for over ten years. It is now behind China or North Korea. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Eritrea as the most censored nation in the world for 2019.
Although we can hope Isaak remains alive, it is not known whereabouts or his current condition. There were reports in 2008 that Isaak was moved to a maximum-security prison. He became very ill, and was then admitted to Asmara’s hospital. Isaak is likely being held in the Eiraeiro prison camp, one of a network of secret prisons where thousands of political prisoners are held in what Amnesty International calls “unimaginably atrocious conditions.”
Isaak’s case offers a looking glass into President Afwerki’s domestic repression, and his government’s systematic and widespread gross human rights violations of its own Constitution. The case also provides a look at the worldwide assault on media freedom perpetrated by authoritarian regimes, which have been allowed to continue their crimes under the shadow of the pandemic.
There is incontrovertible evidence, as documented by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), of the Afwerki regime’s culture of corruption and criminality, including patterns of enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, inhumane prison conditions, and crackdown on dissent.
Last year, the OHCHR confirmed that Eritrean armed forces massacred scores of civilians, including children as young as 13 in the town of Axum in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Recenty, Eritrea was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury’A military commander in Tigray was implicated in serious violations of human rights.
The culture of impunity has found expression in the Afwerki regime repeatedly ignoring every petition and relevant ruling for Isaak’s release, including a final and binding ruling by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ (ACHPR) in 2016.
European citizenship should provide leverage, but Isaak’s Swedish citizenship has not produced effective action by Sweden, five complaints imploring the Swedish Prosecution Authority (SPA) to open an investigation having been rejected so far. The latest was filed on October 28, 2020 by Isaak’s Swedish lawyers, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) and eleven prominent international lawyers.
The SPA has refused to open an investigation on the grounds that, among other reasons, it could have a “negative effect” on Swedish-Eritrean relations and “diminish the possibility” of securing Isaak’s release. Yet, astonishingly enough, the SPA had already made the determination that “there is reason to assume that at least crimes against humanity have been committed against Dawit Isaak.”
The Swedish prosecutors’ ongoing refusal to investigate Isaak’s case appears to have undermined the rule of law, infringed upon the Swedish government’s prosecutorial duties and responsibilities, and may also be said to indulge, if not incentivize, impunity.
It is also not clear that diplomacy has been successful. Across two decades, nine Swedish foreign ministers had been unsuccessful in securing Isaak’s release. The Swedish Parliament early next year is to present the findings of a long-awaited independent parliamentary commission of inquiry set up to review and evaluate the government’s efforts to secure Isaak’s release.
According to an RSF report, rather than hold the Afwerki regime accountable, Sweden lobbied the UN Security Council to lift sanctions against Eritrea, and advised the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency “against providing financial support” to Radio Erena, Eritrea’s only independent radio station, which broadcasts from France. As the report put it, “wary of jeopardizing Dawit Isaak’Sweden’s freedom has been essentially made to dance with Eritrea’s tune.”
Authoritarian regimes are often shamed when they act in concert with democracies. All the levers can be used, including calling for the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention In State-to–State Relations, which has been endorsed by 67 US states and Sweden, as well as imposing Magnitsky Sanctions against senior Eritrean officials who are involved in corrupt acts and violations of Isaak’s rights. The move was supported last month by an international alliance of human rights experts and NGOs. Hearings in the U.S. Senate and House will be held to highlight the worldwide assault on media freedom. Call for Isaak’s immediate release by UN experts. Lastly, refer to the International Criminal Court prosecutor the case pursuant to 2016 recommendations of UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Eritrea.
It is absurd to think that twenty years can go by. The authoritarians around the globe learn another lesson every day Isaak is in jail.