In 2001, Eritrean security forces imprisoned Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaac along with nine other journalists without trial in September 2001. The arrests effectively shut down the nation’s fledgling independent press and any potential political dissent prior to scheduled December 2001 elections, which were subsequently cancelled. To this day, Dawit is believed to be held incommunicado in a tiny cell in poor health. In all the years since his disappearance, Dawit’s brother, Esayas Isaac, has fought for his release. CPJ spoke to him on May 24, during the week of Eritrea’s 19th Independence Day:
CPJ: Tell us a
little about your brother, Dawit Isaac.
Esayas Isaac: My older brother was always active at an early age. He wrote two books—the
first one when he was about 23 years old. It was a sort of Eritrean version of Romeo and Juliet. He won awards for his
writing and was popular both in Europe and Eritrea. Before becoming a journalist
he worked with a children’s theater in Eritrea. He then became a co-owner
and reporter for Setit, an
independent weekly in 1997. It was a critical paper and tried to push for more
democratization. The government
clamped down on this.
CPJ: When your
brother was arrested what did you do?
EI: I was in Sweden and was
in shock. I remember calling Amnesty International and the Swedish government
directly. It was hard to get journalists to take interest in Dawit’s case—most
journalists were focusing on 9/11 and few had any interest in the politics of a
small African country like Eritrea.
But Dawit’s arrest felt like my own personal 9/11. I essentially became a
reluctant activist, fighting for my brother’s release.
CPJ: When did you
start the “Free Dawit” campaign?
EI: A group of
four of us started FreeDawit.com in September 2004. But
we all thought it was a temporary battle, no one believed he would be
imprisoned for so long. But we still continue to fight.
CPJ: What are
some of your group’s recent actions?
EI: Marking Eritrea’s Independence
Day on Monday, we have written a
petition calling on EU governments to play a more active role in fostering
Dawit’s release and push the Eritrean regime to allow him access to medical
attention. As it stands, the EU still provides
aid to Eritrea, which helps fund the prisons that hold my brother. He is in
a critical state.
attaining information from Eritrea
is extremely difficult, how do you know about your brother’s health conditions?
EI: You are
right, Eritreans are afraid to speak out and so there is a vacuum of
information. Even worse, a lot of pro-government types call me up to confuse
the issue. They often make empty promises that they will release him. It was
only after one of the prison
guards escaped to Ethiopia that I managed to find out about my brother. I
met the guard three weeks ago and he told me about Dawit’s health getting worse
and worse. He could end up dying like his friend and colleague, Setit publisher Fesshaye
“Joshua” Yohannes [who died after a long illness in prison in 2007. He won
the CPJ International Press Freedom Award in 2002]. Now it’s the hot season in Eritrea and
Dawit is stifling in a tiny cell. The conditions are truly unbearable. People
ask me how I can keep fighting for my brother after such a long time. The truth
is it is Dawit who is the one fighting for our rights.
CPJ: What about
the Eritrean Diaspora? Have they rallied behind your cause to free your
EI: There are
about 3,000 Eritreans in Gothenberg, Sweden’s second largest city, but only
25-30 of them showed up for a protest we organized recently. Most of the 3,000
knew Dawit but they won’t support him. Some fear a reprisal against their
family or business back in Eritrea,
others simply don’t care. Eritreans I used to speak to avoid me now that I am
involved in activism. It’s a very challenging and lonely experience.
CPJ: What about
the international community? Are they doing enough?
international community must put more pressure on Eritrea. It is not only for Dawit
or for Sweden
but a human rights issue that affects all of us.
CPJ: Monday marked
19th Independence Day. How do you feel about this commemorative day?
And what predictions for the future do you have for Eritrea’s press?
EI: It’s an
important day for Eritreans—a lot of people died in the struggle for this
independence. We should show respect for those who died and their families on
this day. But my dreams of Eritrea’s
future after the 1991 independence are far different today. Today’s celebration
of independence is not for all Eritreans—only those who support the ruling
regime. Many people don’t celebrate anymore since these celebrations are
organized by pro-government groups. Our press today reflects our Independence Day
celebrations, it is only pro-government. Many Eritreans know that a critical
press is important and I hope in the future we will go back to having a free
press. Those who want push for a free press, I encourage them to join our
movement at FreeDawit.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The original text of this entry was modified to correct the spelling of Isaac and the date of Eritrean independence.