behind the news

Trial Begins Tomorrow for Journalists Imprisoned in Ethiopia

Their Swedish colleagues demand justice
October 19, 2011

Two Swedish journalists who have been imprisoned in Ethiopia for almost four months will face terrorism charges in Addis Ababa tomorrow. Freelance photojournalist Johan Persson and reporter Martin Schibbye were arrested on July 1 when they crossed the border from Somalia into Ethiopia’s Ogaden region to report on human rights violations, as Reporters Without Borders reported at the time.

The Swedish press later revealed that Persson and Schibbye were specifically reporting on potential human rights violations committed by Lundin Petroleum, a Swedish-owned energy company with natural-gas operations in Ogaden.

Last month, the Ethiopian government charged the pair with terrorist activity, abetting known terrorists, and illegally entering the country. The terrorism charges stem from the fact that Persson and Schibbye crossed the Somalia-Ethiopia border with the help of Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebels, a guerilla group Ethiopian law categorizes as terrorists.

Before their arrest, Persson and Schibbye were wounded in a firefight between Ethiopian government and ONLF troops, and in videos released of the pair they can be seen with their arms in slings. They have admitted to entering the country illegally but denied participation in terrorism.

Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi has claimed that the journalists were carrying guns when they were captured, and that they had been training with the rebels. “They are not journalists,” Zenawi told the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten last week. “They are, if anything, messengers of a terrorist organization.”

Persson and Schibbye’s friends and colleagues back home in Sweden say that embedding with the ONLF guerillas is the only way to enter the area, which would otherwise be totally inaccessible. And they say they doubt that their friends would have been armed.

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Many Swedish journalists have also criticized leaders in the Swedish government for not doing enough to intervene in the case themselves, and for not appealing to the international community for help.

A piece in the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter last month accused Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt of purposely avoiding involvement in Persson and Schibbye’s case because he himself served on Lundin Petroleum’s board from 2000 to 2006. “The fact that Carl Bildt has reason to hide what is going on in Ogaden could explain why these journalists are still in prison,” wrote the author. The article was written by Kerstin Lundell, an investigative journalist and author of the 2010 book Business in Blood and Oil: Lundin Petroleum in Africa, which accuses the company of taking part in the displacement and abuse of the civilian population surrounding the natural gas extraction areas.

Bildt promptly wrote a response on the opinion site Newsmill, accusing Lundell and Dagens Nyheter of “amateur” reporting, and explaining that Lundin did not yet have any ownership or involvement in Ethiopia when he was affiliated with the company, and that he has no knowledge of their activity there. He concluded, “one may ask what this has to do with the work we are doing to help the two Swedish journalists within a few days will be brought to court in Ethiopia. That’s where the focus rightly should be.”

There have been several public demonstrations in Stockholm and Gothenburg to draw attention to the case in the past few weeks. Anne Markowski, a spokeswoman from “FreeJohanAndMartin,” a group of the journalists’ friends and colleagues who is staging protests and communicating frequently with the ministry of foreign affairs, explained their frustration with the Swedish government.

“They have not spoken openly about the fact that this is not an internal issue in Ethiopia; it is a question of international law and international rights, and the fact that the freedom of the press should apply equally everywhere in the world,” said Markowski in an interview on Tuesday.

She said that Swedish leaders claim that they must adhere to a policy of “quiet diplomacy,” and that risking offending Ethiopian authorities will make it harder to get their citizens home unharmed. But Markowski remains unsatisfied: “It is very important to be clear on this issue, that this isn’t just two Swedish people who happen to be in trouble with the Ethiopian government,” she said. “It is part of a much bigger pattern.”

Since last Monday, a group of about twenty-five journalists have taken turns handcuffing themselves in front of the Stockholm jail for several hours at a time, around the clock, in a demonstration of support and solidarity for the journalists jailed in Ethiopia.

“We have a lot of journalists who are working on this question and writing articles and so on, and very active on Facebook and Twitter for example, but we needed to do something active,” said Sara Murillo Cortes, an organizer of the “Gå i fängelse” (translated: “Go to jail”) demonstration, which also called for the release of long-imprisoned writer Dawit Isaak from Eritrea.

Murillo Cortes added that the situation for the three imprisoned journalists was especially precarious because they are all freelancers, without the backing of a news organization behind them. “We wanted to show people that it could have been any one of us,” she said.

Schibbye and Persson’s case is part of a larger pattern of Ethiopian suppression of the press, according to Caelainn Barr of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The Bureau reported in September that “at least forty opposition politicians and journalists have been arrested by security forces over the last month.” The Bureau also noted that the US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks described “widespread and systematic human right abuses” of every kind by the Ethiopian regime, particularly against opposition in the Ogaden area.

Meanwhile, international human rights groups and the Committee to Protect Journalists are already protesting the trial in Addis Ababa, which was originally scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed until Thursday so that the Swedes’ Somali co-defendants could obtain counsel.

The Ethiopian government has had initially denied all Swedish journalists visas to come into the country to cover the trial, but, as of Tuesday, eighteen of Persson and Schibbye’s colleagues had flown to Addis Ababa in a show of support.*

Correction: We originally reported that the Ethiopian government had denied Swedish journalists permission to come and cover the trial. In fact, the government recently relented and allowed visas to be issued. The relevant paragraph has been updated. CJR regrets the error.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner