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Peter Englund: Free Dawit Isaak

Peter Englund: Free Dawit Isaak

Photo Peter EnglundPhoto Peter EnglundPeter Englund is the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He has joined the World Press Freedom Day campaign this year to highight the plight of WAN-IFRA's 2011 Golden Pen of Freedom laureate, Dawit Isaak, incarcerated without charge for nearly a decade in a notorious Eritrean jail.  In his essay, Peter Englund explores how the right to dissent and question strengthens a nation, and that this unviersal right can not be taken for granted.


It is almost ten years since the journalist and writer Dawit Isaak was imprisoned in Eritrea. Except for a short spell of freedom in 2005 he has been incarcerated ever since, in various hellholes disguised as jails, and over 300 are said to exist in the country. The treatment of prisoners is ruthless. Torture is not unusual. Some prisoners are locked in catacombs, others in unventilated freight containers where temperatures can reach fifty degrees Celsius. They are literally enchained, 23 hours a day, forbidden visitors or even contact with each other. Even the guards are not allowed to talk to them. Some jails are scarcely more than death camps where people are taken, never to return. To die, be buried and forgotten.

One of these camps is Eira Eiro, north of Asmara. Kept there, according to latest information, is Prisoner Number 36, Dawit Isaak. He belongs to a group originally numbering over thirty prisoners. Fifteen have died. There is reason to fear for Dawit Isaak’s life, especially since he suffers from diabetes.

What crime did he commit in 2001? At the time, Isaak was a journalist working for Eritrea’s largest newspaper, reporting on reform demands put by a group within the country’s leadership. That was enough. There has never been a trial. No sentence has ever been promulgated.

In a sense, we are facing a double tragedy.

Because this is happening in the young state of Eritrea, founded after more than thirty years of secessionist warfare, ending in a referendum in 1993. This is a nation that long enjoyed strong goodwill from the West. Not least, the fact that the nation was established as the result of a referendum was early seen as the harbinger of promising development towards an open society. Very little goodwill remains. Eritrea is now associated mostly with the imprisonment of intellectuals and dissidents. It is hard to understand how Eritrea’s leaders could so quickly dissipate its fund of trust, and close off the country from the rest of the world, a country with the need of, and potential for, swift development. A completely different scenario was possible. And still is.

Freedom of expression as a principle is centuries old. It is based on the idea that everyone, because of the knowledge that comes with birth, has a right to decide over not only their own life but also the organisation of the land they live in. It also rests on a simple but only gradually discovered insight: that doubt, question and dissent do not weaken a nation — rather, their absence. (A lesson to remind us is the spring of democracy across the Arab world.) Censorship leaks a corrosive that dissolves the system it is designed to protect. Sooner or later, all dictatorships fall. All of them.

Just as we never give air a thought as long as it’s there, it’s easy to take freedom of expression for granted if you never have to experience its opposite. Or, like Dawit Isaak, have to pay its price. Freedom of expression is indivisible, even in the sense that an individual cannot expect something he or she is prepared to see another go without. The freedom to express oneself. Or, in extension, freedom itself. The principle is always tested in individual cases. Free Dawit Isaak.

Credit: Peter Englund and WAN-IFRA

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