Golden Pen of Freedom Awarded to Swedish-Eritrean Journalist

2011-10-13. Dawit Isaak, who left Sweden for Eritrea to help build the country’s independent press — and was imprisoned for his efforts – has been awarded the 50th anniversary Golden Pen of Freedom, the annual press freedom prize of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

Dawit Isaak (photo Kalle Ahlsén)

by Vincent Peyrègne | October 13, 2011

Mr Isaak has been held in Eritrea for ten years, most of it incommunicado. His whereabouts – or even if he is still alive – are unknown.

“This award is an excellent opportunity to increase global awareness of Dawit’s case and adds to the growing international pressure on the Eritrean authorities to provide information on his health and whereabouts,” said Esaias Isaak, accepting the award on behalf of his brother during the opening ceremony of the World Newspaper Congress and World Editors Forum Thursday in Vienna, Austria.

“The Golden Pen of Freedom breaks the Eritrean government’s attempts to create a wall of silence around Dawit and all other imprisoned journalists,” he said to an audience of more than 1,000 publishers, chief editors and other senior newspaper executives from 102 countries.

WAN-IFRA has presented the Golden Pen of Freedom since 1961 to recognise the outstanding action, in writing or deed, of an individual, group or institution in the cause of press freedom.

Dawit Isaak, an Eritrean émigré to Sweden who took Swedish citizenship, returned to his homeland following independence to co-found the country’s first independent newspaper, Setit, which rose to national prominence and gained a reputation for investigative reporting. But, in 2001, the government closed Setit, along with all of the country’s independence press, suspended civil liberties and jailed numerous journalists, including Mr Isaak.

“Dawit Isaak should have been a prominent, celebrated public figure for his work helping to build the new, desperately poor country in the horn of Africa,” said Erik Bjerager, President of the World Editors Forum, who presented the award. “Instead, he was rewarded by being jailed without charge, without trial, for the past ten years. His family has been barred from visiting and he has disappeared into the silence of the notorious Eritrean prison system.”

In presenting the award, WAN-IFRA again called on Eritrean authorities to immediately release Mr Isaak and all other imprisoned journalists in Eritrea, and for the international community to pressure the Eritrean government into doing so.

Eritrea is as bad as it gets when it comes to press freedom. It is ranked last on Reporters Without Borders “World Press Freedom Index,” below even North Korea, Iran and Burma.

In a controversial Swedish interview in 2009, President Isaias Afewerki made it clear that Dawit Issak’s status as a dual citizen of Sweden was of little consequence and that there were no plans to honour repeated Swedish requests to free him. “We will not have any trial and we will not free him,” he said. “We know how to handle his kind.”

In presenting the Golden Pen of Freedom on Thursday, WEF President Erik Bjerager said: “Today, we declare that we are all ‘his kind.'”

Vincent Peyrègne

Vincent Peyrègne took up duties as Chief Executive Officer of WAN-IFRA in 2012. Prior to joining WAN-IFRA, he was Head of Development at Edipresse in Switzerland (now Tamedia) with responsibility for audience insights, editorial marketing research and product development, before joining the office of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication.

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