January 10, 2012

Ogaden: Swedish Journalists Convicted

Ethiopian government applies anti-terrorist law to sentence two Swedish journalists to 11 years of prison.

Below is an article published by Human Rights House

The prolonged series of arrests and prosecutions indicates systematic use of the anti-terrorism law by the Ethiopian government to silence opposition politicians and the independent media. This week’s conviction of two Swedish journalists by an Ethiopian court on charges of supporting terrorism is emblematic.

Sunday, 25 December 2011, by HRH London, based on English PEN, Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch articles and Amnesty International report.

An Ethiopian judge handed down two Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye 11 years in prison on 26 December 2011. The two journalists were found guilty of entering the country illegally and 'supporting terrorism'.

Many international human rights and free speech organizations have condemned the conviction of Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye by Ethiopia’s court on 21 December in Addis Ababa after an unfair trial.

Judge Shemsu Sirgaga found photojournalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson guilty of “rendering support to terrorism” and entering the country illegally. The prosecutor recommended sentences of 18 years in prison for both men. They are expected to be sentenced on December 27.

“Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were working as journalists and should never have been put on trial. They should be released immediately,” said Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes.

“The sham convictions of two Swedish journalists confirm that the chief purpose of the anti-terrorism law’s clause on ‘supporting terrorism’ is to suppress the legitimate work of the media,” said Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Martin Schibbye (30), reporter for the Swedish news agency Kotinet, and photographer Johan Persson (29) were arrested in Ethiopia's Ogaden region on 1 July 2011 after a clash between Ethiopian forces and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

The pair had entered Ethiopia from Somalia on a journalistic assignment without visas and had been travelling with ONLF fighters. According to English PEN, crossing borders without permission is common practice for journalists reporting from conflict zones. Both journalists were slightly injured in the fighting.

Judge Sirgaga claimed the ONLF – a group classified by the government as a terrorist organization – had arranged the journalists' journey from Somalia to Ethiopia, local journalists told CPJ. Under the 2009 anti-terrorism law, journalists risk up to 20 years in prison if the government deems their reporting favorable to groups designated as terrorists.

After a two-month trial, they were found guilty of rendering support for a terrorist organization by providing “a skill, expertise or moral support or gives advice.” They were also convicted under the penal code of entering the country illegally “for the purpose of engaging in subversive activity.”

Last month, the court dropped original charges of terrorism due to a lack of evidence. The journalists both testified that they were in the country to report on the activities of Swedish oil company Lundin Oil, which operates in the Ogaden region.

The Ethiopian government prohibits journalists and aid workers from entering the region, where a protracted war between authorities and the separatist ONLF rebels is taking place.

Matthias Goransson, editor of Swedish Filter magazine for which Schibbye has worked, and a witness at the trial, says that the pair had been on assignment to report on alleged violations of rights linked to the activities of Swedish oil company Lundin Oil.

The Ethiopian military has been accused of committing rights violations – including killings, rape and driving away local communities – in order to protect the foreign oil operations.

Goransson says that he knew the journalists had been planning to enter Ethiopia illegally as it was unlikely that the Ethiopian government would have granted them access to the Ogaden region.

English PEN encourages to send apeals calling on for the immediate and unconditional release of the journalists to Minister of Justice of Ethiopia and Ethiopia's ambassador in the United Kingdom. Find the details here.

Ethiopia's 2009 anti-terrorism law has been widely criticized as being vaguely worded and catch-all. It carries sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

Since March 2011, at least 108 opposition party members and six journalists have been arrested in Ethiopia for alleged involvement with various proscribed terrorist groups, says Amnesty International in it’s report.

By November, 107 of the detainees had been charged with crimes under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the Criminal Code. A further six journalists, two opposition party members and one human rights defender, all living in exile, were charged in absentia.

Many of those arrested during 2011 have been vocal in their commentary on national politics and in criticising government practise, in the course of their legitimate roles as journalists and opposition politicians. As a result, many had been harassed by state actors over a long period, and in some cases arrested and prosecuted.

Many arrests in 2011 came in the days immediately after individuals publicly criticised the government, were involved in public calls for reform, applied for permission to hold demonstrations at a time when the government feared large-scale protests taking place, or attempted to conduct investigative journalism in a region of Ethiopia to which the government severely restricts access.

Much of the evidence against those charged, and listed in the charge sheets, involves items and activities which do not appear to amount to terrorism or criminal wrongdoing. Rather, many items of evidence cited appear to be illustrations of individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression, acting peacefully and legitimately as journalists or members of opposition parties, and which should not be the subject of criminal sanctions.

In relation to some of the charges, it appears that the overly broad definitions of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation are being used to prosecute individuals for any display of dissent. Calls for peaceful protest are being interpreted as acts of terrorism.

Ethiopia’s government sends a chilling message to other opposition politicians, journalists and anybody who has concerns about the policies and actions of their government to keep quiet, ask no questions or risk arrest. Several journalists and opposition members have already fled the country as a result.

It appears that the Ethiopian government is determined to destroy the few remaining traces of free expression in the country.