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Keynote: When the war on terror puts journalists behind bars

The theme of this year’s 2019 Raoul Wallenberg Address was courage in defence of media freedoms. Martin Schibbye, Editor in Chief of Blankspot, delivered this keynote address on June 5 2019. He was joined by renowned Australian journalist Peter Greste.

Ladies and gentlemen – members of the press. Members of the diplomatic community, youngsters, fellow terrorist-sentenced colleague.

I am deeply honoured to have been invited by the Australian Embassy, and in particular Ambassador Kenna, to deliver this Wallenberg Address.

But believe me I really wish I did not have to do this

This morning, I thought, what if I get a phone call from Asmara, Eritrea and a cracked voice says: “I am free. I am coming home.” This did not happen. This morning, instead, the Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak woke up in his cell. 6464 days after his arrest in September 2001. So did 251 colleagues. I am here today on behalf of Dawit, and other colleagues, that should be with us in this room today. 

A couple of months ago I met his daughter, Bethlehem. She told me about the last time she remembered seeing her father. She was seven years old and had heard a loud bang against the blue steel door, just outside her family house in Asmara, Eritrea.

Outside were two men with dark glasses. She studied them carefully. And thought that they were friends of her father.  “Is Isaak here they asked?” – “There is no Isaak here but Dawit is here” her mother, Sofia, called from the kitchen. Bethlehem remembers showing the men inside, past the lemon tree, the grapes and pottery with plants. 

Sofia asked the men to join them for breakfast. Dawit was still asleep and she called out his name to wake him up. He was always a heavy sleeper. A “workaholic”, who was always either reading or writing something. Often a little absent. Always with an article on his mind. A week earlier his newspaper’s permission to print had been withdrawn after they had published a call for democracy from an opposition group. His colleagues had gone into hiding. But Dawit had told his family that there was no need to worry, they would soon be up and running again. And besides – in the drawer were his and his families Swedish passports. If something did happen the Swedish cavalry would be there for him.

After a while Dawit entered the kitchen. The concrete floor was still cold. Sofia served tea and hot bread. Bethlehem studied her father – he looked calm – and that calmed her. Her mother put out oranges, bananas, ham, and Italian cheese, ricotta from the family’s own cheese factory – Casa de Formagio – on the table.  

Then she served cappuccinos. Only after the men had finished their meal did they tell Dawit he had to come with them. “I will be back soon” Dawit said to his family, and turned to go with the men. Just before passing the blue iron door, he froze suddenly, and turned back to yell – “Take care of my children, make sure they go to school.” That was 18 years ago.   


Today we should honour him, not only for enduring more than 6000 days in jail – but above all, for the journalism that led him there. Dawit Isaak’s contribution to bringing new blood into the Eritrean media industry has been immense over the years. Together with the staff at Setit, they showed what journalism could and should be, but too often isn’t. His articles were to the point, provocative, they expanded the public sphere and signalled a new beginning that made it easier to breathe for the readers in the new country. But he paid a price for the generations to come. The highest price. He paid with his freedom.

Looking back at Dawit Isaak’s life, we must remember that at many points he faced a choice. He is intelligent, well educated, he could have chosen an easy life, he could have chosen another profession, but love for the truth, for his country, for his fellow human beings, and for Eritrea, made him into journalist. He returned to Eritrea, after spending years in Sweden, to start a newspaper. And there he continued to write. His stubbornness and will demonstrates a brand of moral courage that we need now more than ever. And courage is the only thing he is guilty of.


And even though I am free my own prison, I will never be free from the memories, or the sounds. The first screams were always the worst. The frightened sounds just before the first strike, but towards the end, the abused prisoner was always silent. The sound of torture.  Six disease-ridden cells around a small yard, filled with inmates coughing blood, overridden with lice, fleas and rats, were called “Sheraton” by the inmates because, even if it was bad, the small dark cells where humans were kept like animals – standing chained in the dark, hanged upside town, and beaten until they confessed their made up crimes – was worse. The inmates called these cells “Hilton”. Humour is the last line of defence.

Yesterday was Eid, and I will never forget when the inmates celebrated Eid in prison.  The late Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, had just passed away and the prison was buzzing with different rumours.  In the evening, in the Kality prison café, there was whispering about Muslim leaders being arrested, and police officers being killed. Someone claimed to have seen tanks rolling past outside the prison. Nobody knew what was going on. On the TV images of riot police and demonstrators flickered by. The fundamental issue seemed to be that the country’s Muslims where demanding their constitutional right to religious freedom, and that they should be able to choose their own leaders.

The government was responding with violence, arrests and crazy documentaries. Then came the decree: prayer was no longer permitted in the prison. You could hear a pin drop in the room. I remember that despite the tense situation, the Muslims in the room collected money for the purchase of a large, beautifully woven blue and white prayer rug. They dressed up in their best clothes. And as the sun sank outside the tin shack, they surged through the big cell packed with 200 prisoners in silence. Then, suddenly a young man from Mali dressed in a white tunic and traditional headdress stood up. Wearing silk from top to toe, he took a deep breath. Then he started to sing an almost bluesy song: “Allah humma innaka a’fuvun tohib bul afva fa’afu anni…” Another prisoner translated: “We pray to Allah, our forgiving God, that He should forgive us and show us mercy.”

I remember that the muezzin put every fiber of his being into that song, and men from India to the east, to Senegal in the west, rested their foreheads against the cold cement floor and dreamt of their pilgrimage. Shoulder to shoulder, barefoot on the rug. They called out into the night, about the time that was fleeing from them, about the peace of God. They did not pray for freedom, they prayed to become better human beings so that Allah could forgive them. Their faith was stronger than their fear of the committees and the guards. They ignored the ban in praying. And it all became crystal clear. It was not the police officers that kept us calm. It was the geography of fear. 

The fear of not being released. The fear of becoming sick. The fear of torture and death. The inmates praying that night were not afraid of anything but God. I will never forget them. That evening, they helped us all in the large cell keep our dignity and humanity. I will never forget their courage.


After my own release I gave a lot of thought to who would be the next person to stand trial for doing their job if this development was not stopped. After a year I got the answer: On Al-Jazeera. From Egypt when Peter Greste and his colleagues were arrested. What was referred to ten years ago as a “wolf at the door” argument, namely that terror laws could be used against journalists has now become a brutal reality in an increasing number of countries. The war on terror has turned into a war on journalism. The Arabic Spring turned into an early African Autumn. Imprisoning journalists with draconian legislation seems to be a cheap form of censorship without any consequences. 

And to tell you the truth, now back in the field, I am more afraid of lawyers than of landmines. If one more country gets away with prosecuting journalists, none of us will be safe any longer. The rubber-band legislation created to get at terrorists is being abused in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and China to silence, persecute and incarcerate inconvenient voices. The USA is also plummeting like a stone in press freedom rankings, as a result of its increasingly aggressive pursuit of whistle-blowers. And last night, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s offices in Sydney were searched by the federal police over an article based on leaked military documents. 

The majority of those imprisoned globally – 70 percent – are facing anti-state charges, national security laws, such as belonging to or aiding groups deemed by authorities as terrorist organizations. And yes, terrorism is a serious threat to our societies. They can kill us as happened here in Stockholm at Drottninggatan and they can blow up buildings. But it is only us as a nation, our own parliament, which can destroy our own hard fought press freedom and democracy. And we must ask ourselves. In the future, will foreign correspondents dare interview terror-stamped groups such as the Afghani Taliban, the Hezbollah in Lebanon or al-Shabaab in Somalia? 

We need these voices, so that our global understanding of issues is not cut in half. I am not saying it was better in the old days. This has always been a dangerous profession. Since the first AP correspondent Mr Kellog rode with General Custer to the Battle of Little Big Horn – we have been shot and killed.

But I would dare to say that we now face a new situation: International conventions that have helped and protected us in war and peace have lost their respect. More messy conflicts, a lack of resources at the media companies, and most important of all, an insight among states, militias and armies that violence against journalists works, has created a perfect storm. 

In a situation where every rebel group has their own YouTube channel and every state a propaganda machine, a neutral observer becomes a threat to all the actors at play. By killing the messenger they can silence the message.  Jailed, beheaded or shot, colleagues are soon every day news. We are slowly getting used to the extreme. And its not only foreign correspondents who face this situation. In Europe we have had several colleagues murdered last year. Every time a colleague is jailed or attacked, the world should go Bonanza. We must find this strength. It should be as if they tried to fry panda bear at the zoo.  It should be a crime against humanity. A war crime.  I know this might sound a bit grand. But I am really not neutral in this issue. It is personal. 

Press freedom is the freedom upon which all others stand. And I think that if the Geneva Convention was written today, the journalistic mission would have been better protected. But with that said, there is a lot to do in our own backyard too. 

I remember back in 2009, when I visited the massacre site on the island Mindanao in the Philippines where 34 colleagues were killed on their way to a press conference. Outside the National Press Club of the Philippines there is a monument that says “journalists know how to die”. But there was also a debate after the massacre where many colleagues wanted to arm themselves, since the state was not protecting them – other said no, now is the time to be even more professional in our reporting than let the criminals check their quotes just as the victims. To not be sloppy, they give the best argument from both the guerrillas in the jungle and the generals.  Highlighting the ethics of journalism – was the way to stay alive.


In the horn of Africa, at this time of the year, the start of the rainy season is burning hot in the daytime and freezing cold at night. I don’t know what Dawit Isaak’s prison looks like. But I know from my own experiences that – the one thing – that prisoners of conscience fear more than anything else – is to be forgotten. When you’re locked up that is the greatest fear and the support from the outside is what keeps you going. Speeches, campaigns, awards, will not set him free tomorrow, but it will ease his day today. He will go on with his head held high knowing that he is there for a good cause. That the pain and suffering has a meaning. That he is on the frontline in a fight that has turned global. And in that sense, that is more important than food, medicine and water.

But he is not only a symbol. He is also, and foremost, a human being of flesh and blood. He is a father, with a wife and three kids. To demand his release is also to reunite a family that has suffered more in a mental prison over the years than any one should have to suffer. In a letter smuggled out back in 2005. Dawit Isaak wrote:


Ett förhör trodde jag bara tog 45 minuter, max. Men här tar det minst 45 månader. Utan en enda fråga. Jag vet inte längre varför jag är i fängelse. Tyvärr. Inte tills I dag. Säg inte till någon att du fått det här brevet av mig. 

Jag ligger i en flaska, jag tackar dig för att du kämpar för att få ut mig från den här mörka flaskan. ”

When I read these words by Dawit I knew that they will never break him. Because he is at peace with himself. He knows that even though he is robbed of his physical freedom, the freedom to talk or to be silent, the freedom to drink or eat, and even to shit.  He knows, as do all prisoners of conscience, that you have it in you to keep the most valuable freedom, the freedom that nobody can take from you, the freedom to determine who you want to be. And Dawit Isaak is a journalist. And every day he wakes up is just another day at the office.


At last year’s address, Dr Helen Durham said in her speech that Mr Wallenberg was a man of breath-taking courage, but she also pointed out that he was not alone.  And I find this to be a key point when talking about Raoul Wallenberg’s legacy today. It takes a crowd to be brave and it does not erupt from a vacuum. His actions saved thousands of lives but it would not have been possible without clerks printing the safety passes, drivers, translators, and the political leadership behind the scenes creating the mission in the first instance. Secondly, today we are all behind him – but that was not the case during the 1940’s and I think that if we are going to stop the hunting season on journalists and human right defenders we need to step up for them when they need our support the most. 

When they are arrested; when they are in jail; when they are pushing the boundaries. It is then that they need our words of solidarity – not 70 years later, not at the funeral as with Nelson Mandela. Not when it is all over and it is time to share the glory or mourn the dead. Let’s not turn memories into mausoleums. And this is what I appreciated with the work that many of you do in the broad Raoul Wallenberg movement of today. That you are focused on the present, inspired by the past.  And there is a lot we can do. Publish colleagues smuggled-out articles in our newspapers and give them a voice, send our newspapers to the prison and give their guards a gentle reminder that we are watching – let the censor work overtime. Write letters to imprisoned colleagues. 

And there is for sure a growing movement for press freedom. The hundreds of letters we received in Kality. The hundred of thousands of tweets defending the Al Jazeera staff in Egypt. The support for the colleagues in Burma recently. It shows that they can jail journalists but they can never succeed in jailing journalism.  Peter Greste has said that whatever happens from here, we must not lose this extraordinary experience of solidarity. And I think that is a key lesson. To fight for the jailed and killed as one. 

And when I think of Dawit Isaak who is jailed, between walls of corrugated steel I feel sick to the stomach. But then I see his smile and I think that at the end of the day, it’s not us that are fighting for his freedom – but rather he who is fighting for ours.

/ Martin Schibbye, editor-in-chief Blankspot.