November 11, 2011
The arrest and trial of two European photographers highlights the government’s obliteration of independent journalism in Ethiopia
Below is an article published by Think Africa Press:
Too often it takes the man-handling of Europeans by an African judicial system for certain issues to gain exposure.
The reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were arrested back in July for crossing the Somali border into Ogaden. The Ethiopian government claims this was to support the rebel group the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). As a result, they are due to languish in prison until their trials continue in December. Like so many others, their crime was to criticise the policies of the state – in this case by documenting the abuse of ethnic Somalis by government forces.
Alas, theirs is not an isolated case. To say that journalists within Ethiopia have long endured an uphill struggle would be an understatement; the consequences for those brazen enough to criticise their government can, if they are indiscreet enough, be swift and merciless.
This was illustrated vividly around the same time as the arrest of Schibbye and Persson. Two Ethiopian reporters, Eskinder Nega and Sileshi Hagos, were detained after being accused of planning acts of terrorism. Earlier in the year, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that another two had been imprisoned for openly denouncing government policies. Columnist Reeyot Alaemu and Awramba Times writer Wubishet Taye are currently locked up in the Ethiopian capital where they await trial. Yet, unsurprisingly, they have yet to get the same level of attention by the global press as the two Swedes.
Other notable incidents include the closure in 2010 of the popular newspaper Addis Neger. Its crime? Accusing Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2009 of prioritising economic growth over democracy. The result was the paper’s forced closure, with its writers seeking refuge online in its revamped form as a website for expat Ethiopians - the editor currently resides in Oxford, the UK. A similar fate befell the Amharic branch of the radio station Voice of America, as well as the station Deutsche Welle, with the former closed and the latter severely curbed for supposedly being too outspoken. The government has justified all this by insisting the media needs to take a more ‘developmental’ approach, acting as public cheerleaders for its policies. As most of the media is owned by the state, in practice this seems to mean any dissent gets crushed.
One hopes the journalists from Sweden were aware of this before venturing out. Given Schibbye’s career as a freelance reporter in places like Vietnam, Algeria and Cuba, presumably he knew the dangers of crossing into a region like Ogaden. Admittedly, Persson’s arrest by the Ethiopian authorities jars somewhat with his reputation as a ballet photographer. Yet as much as their escapades can look suspiciously like another re-hash of the Just White Man in Africa syndrome, it can not be overlooked that Ogaden is an area with too little light shed on its plight.
Like so much of East Africa, it is a contested territory with a recent history defined by disputes over ill-defined borders. The architects of the ‘Greater Somalia’ project saw it as one of the five regions that would eventually be under full Somali rule. However, Ethiopia’s insistence that the Ogaden was theirs meant violent dissent has been a reality for over 30 years, with the ONLF engaged in an ongoing war with the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Given its past relationship with the ONLF, the Ethiopian state’s reaction to any outsiders seen as friendly to the area is depressingly predictable. In previous years the government detained members of the US Army it suspected were ‘moving in the direction’ of supporting Somali separatists, despite Zenawi’s admission that this was all the evidence they had to go on.
Regardless of whether Schibbye and Persson had any links with them, the government’s claim that the ONLF is a terrorist group grows thin. Without defending some of the tactics used by Somali nationalists in the Ogaden, the Ethiopian state’s retaliations, such as incinerating villages in the region and interning civilians in camps, has drawn widespread condemnation. Combined with how repressive the media landscape has become, the prospects for anyone attempting to draw attention to human rights abuses in the area always looked grim.
To shed light on atrocities in any part of the globe demonstrates a considerable amount of courage for any journalist. But aside from illustrating the paranoia of the Ethiopian government, the perils of Western journalists trying to report in Africa show how neglected issues surrounding press freedom within the continent are. The work of the two Swedes was commendable – but it cannot continue that only their case gets attention. Ethiopian journalists should have a greater voice in the reporting of what happens in their country. Those that do speak out deserve far more recognition.