Dawit Isaak spends twelfth year in Eritrean prison

3:25 min

Twelve years ago today, Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak was imprisoned in his native Eritrea. He has yet to receive a trial. In Sweden, the campaign to free Isaak is still in full force.

Dawit Isaak's brother Esayas recently asked his Twitter followers: “What have you done in the past 12 years?”

He wanted to highlight just how much the Swedish-Eritrean journalist has missed out on while behind bars. Using the hashtag #minatolvar, meaning my 12 years, Esayas Isaak is urging Swedes to share the ups and downs of their lives over the past decade.

And in an effort to highlight Isaak's plight, a range of publishers and journalists are reconstructing his prison cell at the Gothenburg Book Fair this week.

The cell was one of the big talking points at the annual politicians' week in Almedalen last summer. Now, visitors to the Gothenburg Book Fair will get a chance to "sit with Dawit", too.

But just how effective are these kinds of awareness-raising campaigns? Do they help Isaak's case?

Brit Stakston, a media strategist at the PR company that's worked pro-bono on the Sit With Dawit campaign thinks so.

She told Radio Sweden: “All this attention keeps us aware of Dawit Isaak’s situation and of all journalists who are in jail.”

But awareness-raising is one thing, diplomatic efforts quite another.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton recently called for Isaak's release. She said she "remains deeply concerned" over how Eritrea treats is political prisoners.

In September 2001, Isaak was among 11 politicians and 10 journalists who were arrested in Eritrea.

Esayas Isaak recently called for the Swedish state to abandon what he labeled "silent diplomacy" and to try other methods to get his brother out of prison.

For Brit Stakston, media campaigns can complement but not replace the diplomatic efforts that the state engages in to release Swedish citizens imprisoned abroad.

“The Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, who were imprisoned in Ethiopia for 14 months and who were released a year ago, talk about the need for a range of actions…This is a media campaign to raise awareness and to get more, and new, people to engage in the case and to become aware of just how important press freedom is.”

Dawit Isaak’s supporters are still fighting to free him. In Gothenburg today, Schibbye and Persson are among those taking part in a demonstration for Isaak's  release. But Brit Stakston says it is also hard to feel optimistic on a day like this.

”Hopeful is a word that seems hard even to talk about because 12 years is such an immensely long time. I myself have seen my son grow from a child to a young man… Let’s really hope that Isaak will be freed. All attention that can be given to different aspects of this story is important.”