Interview with Swedish Journalist, Bjorn Tunback—an Advocate for Dawit Isaak

Interview with Swedish Journalist, Bjorn Tunback—an Advocate for Dawit Isaak

By Aaron Berhane Our guest of the month is Bjorn Tunback. He’s a Swedish journalist with an immense experience of more than three decades in the...

The Loss of a Hero: A time of Sadness
‘ፕራይም ሚኒስተር ኣቢይ ውግእ ስዒሩ ይኸውን፡ እቲ ኩናት ግን ኣይተወድአን’ ዘ-ኤኮኖሚስት
Sweden’s silent diplomacy will be examined by the commission

By Aaron Berhane

Our guest of the month is Bjorn Tunback. He’s a Swedish journalist with an immense experience of more than three decades in the fields of radio and TV journalism. He has covered local, regional and international news for many years. He has produced documentaries and carried out investigative reporting for radio and TV beside the news reports he was doing from Gothenburg, Norway or London. He was also a board member of Reporters Without Borders in Sweden.

Now, we are not going to talk about his journalistic experience, but the advocacy he does, particularly for Dawit Isaak, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist and former colleague of mine who is located incommunicado in an Eritrean prison camp since 2001.

Though Bjorn has never known or met Dawit in person, he has been a driving engine in the lobby and advocacy of Dawit’s release for more than a decade. To learn more about Bjorn’s endeavors and motivation to tackle this huge task, I interviewed him. I would like to thank him in advance on behalf of our readers for taking the time to do this interview despite his busy schedule.

Here is the excerpt of our discussion.

How did you first learn about the case of Dawit Isaak?

Mr. Tunback: I am afraid I cannot remember exactly when I heard about Dawit. Probably in the autumn of 2001. I met Esayas, brother of Dawit Isaak, in 2002 and learned more and since then I have become increasingly active. That was also when Reporters without Borders decided to give Dawit our very first Press Freedom Prize which was announced in 2003.

Why was he awarded this Prize?

Mr. Tunback: He was awarded it because “he chose to write freely and encouraged others to do the same and, as a result, he lost his freedom.” That helped boost the awareness of the public.

What strikes you more about his situation?

Mr. Tunback: It was strikingly difficult in that it raised attention. For years, you would hear people questioning whether he actually was a journalist since they had never heard about him or read anything he’d written. Also, when Esayas and I spoke at public meetings, we were often met with questions and accusations by the Eritrean regime loyalists saying he had been spying, or had been acting for or funded by Sweden’s liberal party.

What efforts have you done so far (individually or as member of RSF (Reporters without Borders?

Mr. Tunback: We began meetings on his birthday in October starting 2003. We linked up with other organizations like the local football team ÖIS. They took part and thanks to Esayas, they have kept up their work ever since.

We held many meetings in cooperation with OIS, and the Gothenburg Book Fair but it never really broke through, though his case became more well-known. When he was “released” for a few days in 2005, of course, the media reported it.

However, not until his birthday in 2008, was there a broad appeal. Thirty Swedish newspapers and their editors-in-chief demanded his release. I am afraid it was not until then that his case became really well-known.

Way out West is a three-day annual and one of Sweden’s biggest festival. Beside all the music, they have stalls for various groups (and companies, too) on the festival grounds. Through contacts Esayas and I were able to have a stand there where we could promote Dawit’s cause, collecting hundreds of signatories for protest letters to President Isaias and giving out Free Dawit T-shirts. The costs for the stand and the T-shirts were covered by a businessman privately and without taking any credit for it. We did this for three consecutive years.

I also started writing op-eds, for example, after the EU decision when Sweden kept silent on aid to Eritrea and did not even raise Dawit’s name in 2009 or again in 2015. (This  is handled in six-year programmes).

I believe, you also tried to bring Dawit’s case to court. Can you tell me more about that?

Mr. Tunback: Yes, in 2010, Esayas and I started working on that. We asked Percy Bratt, lawyer and chairman of ‘Civil Rights Defenders‘ (then) for a Legal Opinion focusing on the recurrent argument from Eritrea that they consider Dawit an Eritrean and that the Swedish Government has nothing to say about his dual citizenship.

In 2011 I was contacted by the jurist Jesús Alcalá who proposed we send a writ for Habeas Corpus for Dawit. Jesús did most of the legal work but with the support of Percy Bratt (who specializes in Human Rights law and Freedom of Expression/Press Freedom) and of Prisca Orsonneau, French lawyer and then legal coordinator of Reporters without Borders headquarters in Paris.

The writ was sent by courier to the High Court in Asmara in July 2011. In February 2012 another copy of the writ was handed over thanks to the EU Representation in Asmara. Despite receiving two copies, the Eritrean High Court never even confirmed having received the writs let alone work on them. Prisca had a Tigrinya-speaking person to call and check.

Therefore, in 2012, we turned to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In 2014 they accepted the case and in 2017 their decision was published (428/12). Basically they reiterated the decision from 2007 in an earlier case (275/03—Article 19 vs. Eritrea). They demanded the release of Dawit and his colleagues; that they are allowed visits immediately and that the Press ban be lifted.

Meanwhile the three jurists had also sent a complaint to the Swedish Police and Prosecution in 2014 saying that Crimes against Humanity, Torture and Enforced Disappearance/Kidnapping had taken place against Dawit’s case and that the suspects were the President, his advisor, the Ministers for Foreign Affairs, Justice and Defence.

The first two levels of Prosecution turned down the complaint, saying the case could not be investigated as no cooperation was to be expected by Eritrea. We appealed to the Prosecutor-General who came with his decision in 2015. According to him the case could indeed be investigated by Swedish prosecutors, as he found reason to believe that Crimes against humanity had been committed against Dawit—and others—and because reasonability lay with the highest echelons, there were grounds to open a criminal investigation.

But after asking the Foreign Ministry here, he decided not to as he did not wish to harm their ongoing negotiations with Asmara for Dawit’s release after thirteen and a half years. We did of course send his decision both to the African Commission and to the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI).

When the COI came with their final report in 2016, they recommended that all states act against Eritreans suspected of Crimes against Humanity using Universal Jurisdiction. We then renewed the complaint asking for a criminal investigation to be reopened pointing to this recommendation by a UN Commission.

Sadly, the P-G reached the same conclusion again. Legally there were still grounds for an investigation, he thought, but he decided against it for fear of risking the position of the MFA in the negotiations. This decision came after 15 years of fruitless talks when Dawit had spent 15 years in detention.

You didn’t get discouraged by the response of the Swedish government, but you attended the African Commission meeting and shed light on Dawit’s issue. What can you tell me about the uniqueness of that incident?

Mr. Tunback: During the time we had been advocating for Dawit’s case before the African Commission I took part in several panels at side events there, and would make statements on Dawit and his colleagues at each session. This was possible as we managed to achieve observer status before the Commission. 

In one of the statements, I brought messages by the daughters of both Seyoum Tsehaye and Dawit. I gave one of the statements to Vanessa Tsehaye (fmly Berhe) to read out. I also helped Vanessa a bit when she started campaigning for her uncle. We have also carried out meetings together both here and at the African Commission. I must have taken part in about half a dozen meetings at the Commission by now.

In 2014, I traveled to Angola with Esayas and Jesús to attend meetings. Together with CPJ, Article 19 in Nairobi, Defend Defenders in Kampala and IHRDA in Banjul, I have written op-eds both in Sweden and for Africa Review. Thanks to this work, I also spent four months with Defend Defenders in Kampala in 2017 as a fellow.

You facilitated the translation of Dawit’s book from Tigrigna to Swedish, English and French. Please tell me how challenging that process was and how long you worked on it?

Mr. Tunback: It was on my own initiative that Dawit’s first book, Bana, one of his plays, Dillydally, and some of his articles from Setit were translated and compiled into a book in Swedish Hope, the Story of the Love of Moses and Manna & Other Texts with a foreword by Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

That book was published jointly by 11 leading publishing houses in Swedish in 2010. The books were sold for 100 Swedish Crowns. All the money >100 000 SEK was sent to Dawit’s Swedish bank account for him to have as a fruit of his own work, on his release.

After this book was published the tone changed in the public debate, and we would of course no longer have to hear questions that Dawit never wrote anything. Through colleagues at the Radio Dillydally was made into a radio play.

I have coordinated the work to have Dawit’s book translated to English and French. Hope/Espoir, atwo-language pocketbook was launched at the UNESCO Press Freedom Event in Accra in 2018.

In November I took part in the Second Strategic Conference on Eritrea arranged by PEN in Vienna. Thanks to them, his book will be translated to German too. It will be launched this autumn at the book fair there and possibly in Frankfurt as well.

I have also taken part in panels in the EU parliament and at the Human Rights Council and helped both the COI and the UN HRC Special-Rapporteurs on Eritrea get in touch with people here in Sweden.

How challenging was it to deal with the huge task of translating this book?

Mr. Tunback: Regarding the work with the book, I had no clue on how to do that, but an old colleague from the radio, Svante Weyler, had started a publishing house, so I asked him. Thanks to him and all his contacts with other publishers, layout people, printers, the paper business, etc. and thanks to a grant from the Swedish Academy, we managed to pull that project off.

Svante handled the contacts for translation to Swedish and editing. For the French/English I managed all the contacts. The publisher and PEN member Ola Wallin handled the book production and administration of the project.

It was really difficult to find translators and took longer than I had thought. In the end I contacted Kassahun Checole and went to see him in New Jersey (I had received a scholarship to travel there, to Paris and to Nairobi/Kampala).

Kassahun solved it all by putting me in touch with Abraham Zere. As there seems to be fewer Eritreans who have gone to France I couldn’t find anyone to translate straight from Tigrinya to French, so we had that done from Abraham’s English version.

The German translation and all the practicalities for that are handled by Wolfgang Martin Roth of PEN Austria. The Swedish translation took one year from my idea upon leaving the book fair in 2009, hearing they would have Africa as a theme in 2010. The next translation took much longer and needed a lot more pushing.

So, how long did it take to complete the translation of the entire book?

Mr. Tunback: I think I started working on that in 2013. By then much focus was needed for the legal work at the Commission and the Swedish Prosecution so I did not follow up as much as I would have liked to. I would leave it hanging for months sometimes, I am afraid. Ola also left PEN during that period, so the release of the book was delayed until 2018.

What do you think is the reason behind the silence of the Swedish diplomacy?

Mr. Tunback: The silence may have been the right thing part of the time, but I think if Sweden would have reacted vigorously at the start that might have made a difference for Dawit, but not for all his other colleagues.

I have seen so many times where Sweden has decided to keep silent. Sweden could have protested or at least raised Dawit’s case in the EU discussions about aid to Eritrea in 2009 and 2015. Sweden could have reserved itself there as it has at some other times (in at least one case regarding Kenya or Tanzania).

Sweden could have spoken up in the HRC where countries like Norway and Germany have been tougher during the UPR processes. Instead the MFA would say that we work through the EU and that EU speaks for Sweden. (Sweden has not been entirely silent though, but discreet).

Sweden could have opened a criminal investigation for Crimes against Humanity in 2014 and in 2016. Sweden could have acted on the 2% issue by closing the Embassy and sending diplomats away. (Sweden has only expelled one diplomat in all these years, but we have not been given the reasons for it). Sweden could have grounded some of the diplomats and given them travel restrictions.

I think all this is partly due to a tradition of working through negotiations and soft power. But it is also a result of a lack of engagement. Had a Swedish journalist been detained in Russia or earlier during one of the Latin American military dictatorships, it would have fitted into a greater and more familiar political context and politicians would have been reacted differently. Eritrea is a much less known territory.

And, like we have talked about before, both the fact that Dawit was not known here before and never worked for a Swedish paper is another circumstance. And, I am afraid to say, the fact that he wasn’t born here works against him. Not that they are racists, but I am sure the government would have reacted differently if he had been a white, Swedish-born journalist with a Swedish name.

How does Swedish society perceive it when they observe one of Dawit’s brothers working for his release and another brother Tedros working against it?

Mr. Tunback: Regarding Dawit’s brothers, I think on the whole, the Swedish general public will only know about Esayas as he has been so active and dedicated.

Tedros and his attack on Meron Estifanos let alone the interviews he has given in Tirginya are not well known. I think I told you of the confusion when Esayas accompanied Meron to the police when she reported Tedros’ threat. The police was so confused and first thought she wanted to report Esayas, and could not understand why they came together.

If they knew about the split between the brothers, I think many will not understand it. Others might if they remembered what have heard of divided families in East Germany and other such countries.

How optimistic are you to see the freedom of Dawit?

Mr. Tunback: We have no other option but to expect Dawit will be released. He does not have a choice where he is. Therefore we have no choice other than to continue the work for him.

In the end I do of course hope I will one day be able to meet him and sit down to have a good long talk with him.

Thank you, Bjorn, on behalf of our readers!