Why we are recognising Dawit Isaak today
Today, on World Press Freedom Day the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize is awarded to Dawit Isaak. Unfortunately he will not be able to accept it himself.
Arrest came without warning. The regime acted while the eyes of the world were on the USA and the terrorist attacks that had shaken New York only 12 days before. Swedish journalist and author Dawit Isaak was arrested together with other journalists and opposition politicians, just when Eritrea had begun to move towards becoming a democratic society. Since then Isaak has been in prison without a trial, without any opportunity to meet his wife and children, without any opportunity to freely express his thoughts and feelings. It is completely unacceptable that Dawit Isaak is still imprisoned 15 years after his arrest.
Dawit Isaak is a prisoner of one of the world's most uncompromising dictatorships. Eritrea is the country ranked last in the world by Reporters Without Borders in terms of freedom of the press. No trial has ever taken place and the Eritrean regime has shown no interest in presenting any case for the prosecution. This is what justice looks like in one of the world's most uncompromising dictatorships.
To Swedish and foreign leaders who have the opportunity to put further pressure on the Eritrean regime, there is only one message: use all possible means to facilitate Dawit Isaak’s immediate release.
My thoughts particularly go out to Dawit Isaak today, on World Press Freedom Day. As the chair of the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize jury, I will today attend the award ceremony in Jakarta where he will be recognised. Unfortunately he will not be able to accept it himself. Instead, his daughter Betlehem Isaak will be present.
Sadly, as a jury we were faced with many similar cases. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 259 journalists were being held in prison around the world in December 2016, and 110 journalists were murdered in the same year. These are reporters who have investigated the balance of power, who have provided alternative views, who have challenged authoritarian regimes in a world where it is becoming ever more common for corrupt and criminal people to want to control what is said and to acquire the right of interpretation.
In this reality, it is essential to repeatedly provide reminders of the importance of freedom of the press. Without free, independent media, no democracy can be healthy. At the same time it is impossible to avoid recognising that journalism is increasingly often under enormous pressure. In many places, politicians with great power do not accept the media’s role as an independent oxygenator of democracy – and we see this both within and outside the boundaries of Europe. Unfortunately we can no longer take for granted those freedoms that it has taken so long to build up. It is therefore our responsibility, on a daily basis, to take on the battle for which so many of our colleagues have sacrificed their lives and their freedom.
Cilla Benkö, CEO of Swedish Radio, and chair of the jury for UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize