After a high profile court case staged here in Addis Ababa, attracting international attention, two Swedish journalists were sentenced to serve an eleven year sentence.
The government successfully charged the two journalists with supporting the “terrorist” Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) group and entering the country illegally to do so. While admitting guilt to the latter charge, the two say they were in Ogaden area only to gather news about a Swedish oil company exploring the region for oil reserves.
Despite the court’s guilty verdict, I strongly believe that the fellow journalists, reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson, entered the country only to conduct journalistic activities. After all the 2009 Anti-terrorism law the ruling party MPs wrote, without a single opposition or moderate support, has opened doors to potentially treat a simple news story as a terrorism act. So, I understand and second the outcry by rights groups and their messages that the journalists have done anything but support terrorism.
Imagine this very regrettable Ethiopian law taking effect for example in the United States. Subsequently, news media outlets there that usually feature a message from Osama bin Laden or his predecessors would no longer be able to do so. This would be because their reporters could be prosecuted and the media can be sanctioned against as the report may be seen as “promotion” of terrorism.
Inalienable human rights put aside, from the information dissemination stands alone, what would this result in is a wide spread of speculations and rumors about messages from the terrorists which would only lead to panic. People would be more scared. But fortunately that is not a reality and media in the US report and broadcast such messages and their reports, which usually enjoy a quote from relevant authorities, only inform but not scare or misinform as speculations usually do. In the Ethiopian case also, Ethiopians read and hear about local groups, deemed as terrorist by the Ethiopian government, from foreign based media outlets.
Since the enactment of the anti terrorism law, Ethiopian journalists like me I am sure face a dilemma on what to report and what not to report and what would be seen as “promotion of terrorism” and what may be allowed.
For example recently while conducting a series of interviews, mostly with government and American officials, in a recent visit to the United States, opportunities arose to interview leaders of groups that are designated as “terrorist” by Ethiopian parliament. And I, in consultation with my editors, chose not to interview the people.
Any reputable media in any open society, even some media paid by public funds; I don’t think even think twice about conducting an interview with Ayman al-Zawahiri. Why should they? People are interested to hear what he has to say, no matter how atrocious his acts may be.
Intentionally or not, journalists here are forced not only to think about what their readers want and need but how authorities see their report also. This doesn’t show the existence of a free press or freedom of speech. This is not a character of an open society. If Time doesn’t mind to talk to American terrorists, why should local media mind talking and interviewing Ethiopian terrorists?
It is because what I see as a very unfortunate confusion of doing journalism and terrorism that I call on the Ethiopian authorities to free the Swedish journalists.
While I join right groups call to see the freeing of the two journalists, I reject stands by some right groups and foreign government officials who have been calling for their unconditional and immediate release.
Truth be told these journalist indeed broke the law of the land; nobody in their right mind can dispute that any government in any part of the world should not hold accountable people entering its territory illegally.
How can a court or a government be asked to release people “unconditionally and immediately” when they themselves admit entering the country illegally?
As the government usually accuses Western groups of trying; it is easy to see such calls as only aimed at circumventing the country’s law enforcing capacity.
It is also illogical to say that since Ogaden isn’t open to journalists that the Swedish journalists are “right” to enter there illegally and with the armed men.
Whether the government has anything to hide or not from Ogaden conflict areas is totally irrelevant. Just for the record, the area should be open to the press scrutiny. But let alone a conflict area even if there exists another Guantanamo Bay detention camp, breaking into a sovereign soil with outlawed armed men is a crime the journalists will need to answer for. Imagine a BBC correspondent trying to break into the infamous detention center? Would the guards think twice to shoot them?
As I require a visa to enter Sweden, so should have the Swedish journalists to come here and authorities have every right in the world to hold them accountable because they have evaded that.
The journalists have spent more than six months in prison. That is serving more than half of the time they have been given by the court for the self professed act of entering the country illegally. The unfortunate charge of supporting terrorism and its sentence aside, I would say they paid their dues.
They are expected to submit their pardon request soon. This is also a sign of respect extended to the people and authorities here. “There’s a tradition of pardoning and forgiving in Ethiopia and we choose to trust in this tradition,” said the spokesperson Anna Roxvall in a statement emailed to international news agencies.
Other than being seen as a weak government that gave in to calls to Western based officials, I don’t think the government has any other concerns preempting it from releasing them. The obvious crime of entering the country has been admitted and they have served most of the time handed to them. They were caught, charged, convicted and served most of the time I think they deserve.
Other than this, making the foreign journalists be victims of the controversial antiterrorism bill that the ruling party sees as an answer to crash local armed groups would be tragically wrong. After all the local groups such as ONLF designated as terrorists are not treated as such even by the United States which remains a key ally to Ethiopia and the country that invented the so called ‘war on terror’. So as far as the journalists are concerned they were not caught with terrorists though from where they came from interviewing terrorists isn’t a crime by itself.
We don’t have to prove to the West that we can sustain their pressure and keep the journalists in jail for many years just to make the point. We should not act like we were un-colonized because we weren’t, so we don’t have to prove something known.
So the two made error in judgment, broke the law and paid what most would have to in open and democratic societies. So let’s send them to their home. Dragging the matter further is only soliciting negative publicity and let’s face it and be honest, we are better off without it.