October 13, 2011

Ogaden: Zenawi Labels Jailed Journalists As ‘Terrorists’

After being met by vocal protests in a visit to Norway this week, Prime Minister Zenawi has proceeded to brand the two arrested Swedish journalists who have been trying to report on the human rights situation of the Ogaden as ‘terrorists’.

Below is an article published by Sudan Tribune:

An international press freedom watch dog has accused Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, of prematurely calling two jailed Swedish journalists “partners of terrorist organization” while their case is still in court.

The New York-based, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said "Zenawi’s public accusations on Monday against two imprisoned Swedish journalists compromise the presumption of their innocence and predetermine the outcome of their case".

The two Swedish journalists, Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, in July illegally crossed into Ethiopia’s Somali Region from neighboring semi-autonomous region of Puntland, with some armed members the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebel group, recently designated as terrorist organisation by Addis Ababa.

The Swedes who also were wounded in a security operation then are charged with professionally promoting terrorism, engaging in terrorist conducts, and entering the country illegally.

"They are, at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organization. They are not journalists," Zenawi said in a Monday interview with Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten.

"Why would a journalist be involved with a terrorist organization and enter a country with that terrorist organization, escorted by armed terrorists, and participate in a fighting in which this terrorist organization was involved? If that is journalism, I don’t know what terrorism is."

Zenawi went on to say that government has video proof showing the Swedes taking training with the rebels. CPJ says the footage is a government-produced video released by authorities in July in which one of the journalist (Persson) is seen handling a weapon.

"We have video clippings of this journalist training with the rebels", the prime minister said. In the same video, Schibbye is heard being instructed by an Ethiopian security officer to say to the camera, "We came to the Ogaden region to do interviews with the ONLF," according to CPJ research.

CPJ condemned labeling the journalists as accomplices to terrorists ahead of the court ruling and further urged Ethiopian authorities to conduct a fair trial.

"Since arresting Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, the Ethiopian government has compromised their fundamental rights of defense-chiefly, the presumption of innocence-by portraying them in the media as accomplices to terrorists, charging them with terrorism without the presence of their lawyers, and making accusatory statements against them, like those by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, which appear to predetermine the outcome of their trial before it even starts," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita.

"We call on the Ethiopian judiciary to guarantee both journalists a fair trial in what has become a politicized case."

In the interview, Zenawi called the journalists’ case "an issue of crime, an ordinary criminal issue," and said,

"Those who want to enter Ethiopia legally are not being prevented from entering the country legally, including journalists." However according to CPJ, media in Sweden reported on Monday that not one Swedish journalist who had applied for a visa to attend the journalists’ October 18 trial had been approved yet.

According to CPJ research, with eight journalists behind bars, Ethiopia is continent’s second most jailers of journalists next to Eritrea.

Despite accusations of wide ranging human rights violations from advocacy groups, the Ethiopian premier said his country was "moving in the right direction" in terms of human rights.

"We have reached a very advanced stage of rule of law and respect for human rights," he said. "Fundamentally, this is a country where democratic rights of people are respected", he told Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.

Founded in 1984, the ONLF is a separatist group which has been fighting for the independence of the oil promising and dominantly ethnic Somali region of Ogaden.