I am going to make democracy in Eritrea.
Dawit Isaak co-founded Eritrea’s first independent newspaper in 1997. But his desire to promote open debate in the newly independent nation has cost him over 15 years in a detention centre notorious for human rights abuses. He is the recipient of the 2017 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.
Dawit Isaak is a writer, journalist and playwright who has been detained without charge since 2001.
Born in Eritrea in 1964, Isaak moved to Sweden in 1987, where he eventually became a citizen and went into self-imposed exile.
Isaak returned to Asmara in 1993 – a few years after Eritrea was freed from Ethiopian rule – and co-founded the country's first independent newspaper, Setit, in 1997.
But the journalist's own freedom was quashed shortly thereafter. In 2001 – following Setit's publication of an open letter calling for the implementation of the new constitution and elections – Isaak was arrested, along with ten other journalists, in a crackdown that saw eight independent newspapers shut down. With no charges laid against him or access to a lawyer, Isaak was sent to Eiraeiro, a detention centre notorious for human rights abuses. In a Human Rights Watch report, Eyob Bahta Habtenariam – who claims to be a former Eiraeiro guard – is cited as saying that Eiraeiro inmates have died due to very high temperatures, lack of medical care, and inadequate food rations.
According to the International Press Institute (IPI), the last time Isaak was heard from was in 2005, when he was permitted to leave prison for a few days for medical reasons.
In 2013, after advocacy by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) began examining Isaak's case.
To the relief of free expression defenders around the world, in June 2016, Eritrean Foreign Affairs Minister Osman Saleh announced that Isaak was alive. He noted, however, that Isaak would only be sentenced when the government was prepared to do so.
In addition to IPI, Human Rights Watch and RSF, many IFEX members have advocated for Isaak's release, including The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), PEN International, the World Association of Newspapers and Publishers (WAN-IFRA), and more.
On 30 March 2017, UNESCO announced that Isaak had been chosen to receive the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, which “honours a person, organization or institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the defence and, or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world, and especially when this has been achieved in the face of danger.” The prize will be awarded on 3 May 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia, as part of the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day.
Commenting on UNESCO's announcement, Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of RSF's Africa desk, said:
“The decision to award Dawit Isaak this year's prize is an encouraging signal. It sends a strong message of denunciation of regimes that obliterate the media and journalism because they communicate democratic values. We reiterate our call to the Eritrean government to free all the journalists it has arbitrarily imprisoned for so many years.”
Past award winners include Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was released from prison a few weeks after being awarded the prize in May 2016, Syrian lawyer Mazen Darwish, also released from prison that same year, and Turkish journalist Ahmet Şık.
Isaak is also the recipient of WAN-IFRA's Golden Pen of Freedom, RSF's Freedom of the Press Prize, the Swedish National Press Club's Anna Politkovskaya Award, Swedish PEN's Tucholsky Prize and the Norwegian Authors Union's Freedom of Expression Prize.
Eritrea received the lowest ranking - at 180 in a list of 180 countries - in RSF's 2016 World Press Freedom Index. It is also described as “Not Free” in Freedom House's 2016 Freedom of the Press report and, in 2015, was described as the most censored country in the world by CPJ.