October 26th, 2016

Free speech article earns sixth former Max an Amnesty award

Updated: 9:36 am, May 13, 2016

STANDING up for free speech has won a Warwick sixth former a major human rights competition.

Max Owen beat hundreds of entrants from across the UK to win the reporting category of the Amnesty Youth Awards. The awards encourage young people between the age of seven and 19 to explore human rights issues through reporting, photography, poetry, performance, campaigning or fund-raising.

Max’s entry – Power of 5000 – focused on the plight of Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak, who has been held in an Eritrean prison since 2001 without trial and is considered a traitor by the Eritrean government, along with a number of other journalists. Their crime? Demanding democratic reforms in a series of letters to president Isayas Afeworki.

Warwick School student Max was involved with Leamington-based Christian charity Cord which works in war torn and impoverished areas of the world delivering aid and promoting peace. This in turn got Max interested in Amnesty International, and standing up for humanity and human rights.

The 17-year-old – who is planning to go to university to study politics and international relations – was presented with his prize at a special ceremony in London on Friday.

He said: “I had work experience in South Africa which is what initially sparked my interest in the journalist Dawit Isaak, and I decided to write about it as I wanted to research further into his case which is what Power of 5000 is about.”

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said: “In an era when we see tragedies unfolding on our screens in places like Syria, the Central African Republic and Yemen, it is great to see the next generation cares so much.”

The judging panel included Ritula Shah and Susan Roth, both from the School of African Studies, last year’s winner, Alannah Lewis and Kathryn Bromwich from The Observer.

Max Owen’s winning report.

Journalist Dawit Isaak was arrested in 2001. His crime: writing an open letter opposing the government. His Punishment: Over 5000 days in prison without charge, without contact and without concern for his human rights. Eritrea was placed at the bottom of the 2015 World Free Press Index and has been dubbed, “Africa’s biggest prison for media.” The Eritrean constitution promises freedom of press although since the imposition of strict censorship in 2001, to protect the cruel autocratic regime of President Afwerki, journalists write in fear of the consequences and many have been arrested. The actions taken by President Afwerki clearly breach the right to free press but perhaps most concerning is Afwerki’s response to accusations that Eritrea has poor human rights records saying, “We are not questioning the fact that we have done this [creating political prisoners] and we will continue to do it.” But what of those journalists who manage to escape being arrested? They face an impossible dilemma. Stay in Eritrea in the hope that the government will not take offence with what you write and risk being imprisoned, or leave your home with what you can carry and seek asylum. It’s 15 years later and no arrested journalists have been brought to trial or charged. The Eritrean Supreme Court has suffocated the cries for Habeas Corpus and instead requires those arrested to live in squalid prison camps where Al Jazeera reported that, “Detainees are often held in underground cells or in shipping containers.” The UN’s 2015 report into Eritrea referenced, “Extrajudicial killing, torture and rape,” within prisons which may be considered, “Crimes against humanity.” What will happen next to Eritrea’s prisoners of conscience hangs in the balance. Prisoners are held incommunicado in undisclosed locations, creating further worries for the families who feel blindfolded from the truth of their relative’s situation. Isaak’s daughter Bethlehem commented to Swedish Newspaper SvD in 2011 that she was part of, “A family who has been robbed of our father,” but she still holds hope as she daily tells the fading memory of her Father that, “Every day that passes is one day closer to your freedom.” June 2nd 2015 marked 5000 days from the arrest and imprisonment of Isaak and the other journalists. In Stockholm, Sweden, at least 5000 people stood united in protest for the freedom of Dawit Isaak, for the freedom of press and for the freedom of speech. Although it was by no means the largest protest, it made global news headlines and cast the spotlight on Eritrea, illuminating the truth that “lies” in their treatment of the press. Giant stands of unity for the freedom of Dawit Isaak have, can and will create vast differences in pressuring governments to respect human rights and the way it treats countries that abuse these rights. John Stuart Mill perfectly captures the reality of what human rights abusers such as Eritrea will discover, “A country that dwarfs its men will find that with small men, nothing truly great can be accomplished.”