Journalists face threats in covering Isaac imprisonment

Meron Estefanos was threatened over her coverage of journalist Dawit Isaac. (Sven Lindvall/Expressen)

New York, September 26, 2011--A Sweden-based journalist was publicly threatened Friday in connection with her reporting on the case of Dawit Isaac, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist who has been imprisoned in Eritrea for a decade without charge, according to news reports and CPJ interviews. A day earlier in New York, bodyguards for the Eritrean leader Isaias Afewerki pushed and threatened two Swedish journalists seeking to speak to the president about the Isaac case, the journalists said. 

Meron Estefanos, a contributor to the leading Eritrean diaspora news site Asmarino, was confronted Friday by Tedros Isaac, a brother of the detained journalist whose strong support of Afewerki is extensively documented, after a public forum on the Isaac case at the Gothenburg Book Fair in Sweden.

"You mention my name and write about Dawit Isaac's family one more time I'll cut your throat," witnesses and Swedish Radio SR quoted Tedros Isaac as telling Estefanos. In a 2010 column published on Asmarino, Estefanos wrote about the deep political divisions that have split Eritrean families into pro- and anti-government camps. In the column, Estefanos had contrasted Tedros Isaac's ongoing support for the government that arrested his brother with the extensive advocacy to free the journalist that has been undertaken by other brothers.  

Sweden's Expressen newspaper reported Friday that Estefanos had given a statement to the police and quoted Thomas Fuxborg, a local police spokesman, as saying that a preliminary police report had been written.

The confrontation occurred on the 10th anniversary of Isaac's September 23, 2001, arrest. Detained in a broad crackdown on independent journalism, he has been held without charge or trial since that time, with only brief contact with his family in 2005, according to CPJ research. Estefanos, who spoke at Friday's forum, has been one of the leading activists in Sweden campaigning for the release of Isaac and other political prisoners in Eritrea, according to CPJ research. At least 17 journalists are now being held in Eritrea prisons, according to CPJ research.

A statement released by the Gothenburg Book Fair and signed by Nobel prize laureates Mario Vargas Llosa and Herta Müller, as well as John Ralston Saul, president of PEN International, called on Sweden and the European Union to take a tougher approach toward Eritrea to secure Isaac's release. CPJ research shows the Eritrean government has used agents and proxies to intimidate the country's exile press.

A day earlier in New York, bodyguards for Eritrean President Afewerki roughed up and threatened two Swedish journalists seeking to ask the president questions about Isaac, according to CPJ interviews. "I got an elbow in the stomach," Mats Larsson, U.S. correspondent of Expressen newspaper, told CPJ, describing how he and photographer Axel Oberg were pushed aside after they approached the president as he walked near United Nations headquarters. When Oberg later tried to take photos of Afewerki, the journalist told CPJ, another bodyguard attempted to seize his camera and made hand signals as if to slit his throat.

"We're relieved that Swedish police are investigating the reported threats against Meron Estefanos," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. "It's disturbing that bodyguards for President Afewerki tried to intimidate journalists Mats Larsson and Axel Oberg in New York. There is no place for threats against reporters trying to do their jobs."

September 26, 2011 1:12 PM ET |

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