Eritrean Journalists shed light on their imprisoned colleagues at the Book Fair of Gothenburg

Radio Erena: 03 October 2019

Eritrean journalists took part in the Book Fair of Gothenburg to increase awareness about the arrest of Eritrean journalists and particularly Dawit Isaak, a Swedish citizen, on the occasion of the 18th anniversary of their arrest.

The Gothenburg Book Fair which is the largest book fair in the Nordic region, is a literature festival, a platform of debate on political issues, freedom of speech and other international issues. Journalists, authors, artists and many intellectuals voice their opinions, deliver speeches and debate in the panel discussions to influence people and policymakers.  They held the event from September 26 to September 29.

The Book Fair and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Sweden invited the Eritrean journalists to attend the fair and shed light on the dire situation of Eritrean imprisoned journalists.

An Eritrean poet and radio journalist Yirgalem Fisseha, the head of news desk of Radio Erena Amanuel Ghirmai, a Swedish journalist, Bjorn Tunback, a dedicated advocate of Dawit Isaak,, Dawit’s brother Esayas Isaak, Martin Schibbye, a journalist and author of ‘A Hunt of Dawit’, and I were debating in several panels to explore and discuss the situation of Dawit, the current situation of Eritrea and how the Swedish government handles Dawit’s case.

All panelists painted a vivid picture of the current situation of Eritrea and the journalists who have been in jail since 2001.

Yirgalem Fisseha who was arrested for six years (2009 to 2015) in Eritrea’s military prison camp of Mai-Sirwa, described the terrible situation of the prison by sharing her own painful experience elegantly. She transported the audience to imagine what Dawit Isaak and colleagues have been going through in the last 18 years. She said that her prison camp was very horrible, full of physical and mental torture, and constant harassment. However, compared to Eiraero in which 11 journalists, including Dawit, are languishing is better, she said.

Amanuel Ghirmai highlights the role of media and particularly the role of Radio Erena in filling the vacuum of information in Eritrea that was created after the closure of the independent press. He articulated the challenges people used to face to learn what happened in one area of the country if they live in the other part or vice versa. The situation curtailed the people’s vision and the PFDJ (People’s Front of Democracy and Justice) regime got the chance to manipulate and exploit them. He added that the mandate of the establishment of Radio Erena since 2009 is to fill the void of information, tackle the Eritrean government propaganda and provide the people with authentic news. The radio provides daily via satellite from France in Tigrigna and Arabic languages.

Bjorn Tunback who has been the engine in the campaign for Dawit’s release for many years along with Esayas Isaak, criticized the approach of the Swedish government and the European Union. He said that the European Union gives aid to Eritrea without even raising Dawit’s case as a precondition. The Swedish government should apply tougher tactics instead of depending only on ‘quiet diplomacy’ for an indefinite period.

I spoke about the crackdown of the independent press in Eritrea on September 18, 2001, and the arrest of 11 dynamic journalists who have been living incommunicado since then. Even though Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement last year, nothing has changed in Eritrea since. All prisoners of conscience are still in jail; the government hasn’t ended the indefinite national service; it hasn’t implemented the constitution, and arbitrary arrests are still going on. I also discussed the personal and professional profile of Dawit as a former colleague.

Journalist Martin Schibbye who published a new book that profiles Dawit Isaak by going beyond the image increased awareness about Dawit’s incarceration for 18 years. He described Dawit’s history as a family man and a professional journalist.

The Gothenburg book fair has about 850 exhibitors and about 90,000 visitors. Many of them had time to see a resemblance to Dawit’s prison cell which ‘Free Dawit’ campaigners had made. They invited visitors to sit inside the cell for 15 minutes to feel what Dawit is going through. It was a wonderful method to help place every visitor who entered the cell to feel what it was like to be in Dawit’s shoes.

An activist and artist Gianluca Costantini. portrayed the image of 14 Eritrean imprisoned journalists—Dawit Isaak, Feseha Yohannes, Seyoum Tsehaye, Mattewos Habteab, Amanuel Asrat, Medhanie Haile, Yosuf Mohamed Ali, Temesgen Gebreyesus, Said Abdelkader, Saleh Idris Said, Dawit Habtemichael, Sahle Tsegazeab, Edris AbiAre, and Jimie Kimeil—with a brief description of each of them.

What was most iconic was an empty chair! The Book Fair and partners designated an empty chair for Dawit to let every participant know that one of our colleagues didn’t show up to be with us due to the incarceration. Several people standing beside the chair to read the powerful message written by Gothenburg Book Fair, Swedish Pen, Swedish Authors’ Union, Swedish Union of publishers, Reporters without Border, and Expressen.
It says:
“Welcome to Goteborg Book Fair, Dawit Isaak
We have invited you here because we would like to know you better, beyond your symbolic persona. The way things are, you cannot be here, instead, we listen to people close to you and through them, we get to know you, your background and your work. However, we wish we could hear your voice. Since 2001 you have been imprisoned in Eritrea.
If nothing changes, the invitation still stands. Year after year.

Your chair will be here waiting for you until the day that you are able to come to the Goteborg Book Fair.

The note may have focused on Dawit as a Swedish citizen, but that invitation goes to all incarcerated Eritrean journalists too. The organizers, panelists and even the audience made it clear at this memorable book fair. They will never stop campaigning until they see Dawit and his colleagues set free.

By Aaron Berhane