Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson could be sentenced to up to 18 years. (Reuters)
Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson could be sentenced to up to 18 years. (Reuters)

CPJ condemns trial of Swedish journalists in Ethiopia

New York, December 21, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns an Ethiopian court’s decision to convict two Swedish photojournalists today in what appears to be a politicized trial.

Judge Shemsu Sirgaga found photojournalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson guilty of supporting terrorism and entering the country illegally, local journalists told CPJ. The convictions could lead to a sentence of up to 18 years. They are expected to be sentenced on December 27.

The convictions come amid a crackdown on independent reporting in Ethiopia, whether by local or foreign reporters, in what local journalists suspect is linked to government fears of a civil uprising as witnessed in North Africa. Ethiopian authorities have charged 10 journalists with trumped-up terrorism charges since June 2011, CPJ research shows. With seven journalists in prison, the country holds the ignominious title of the second leading jailer of journalists in Africa, second only to its neighbor Eritrea.

“Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were simply doing their job as journalists and should not have spent a day in jail,” said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “Their trial is politicized and designed to curb any reporting on the sensitive Ogaden area. CPJ calls on authorities to release these journalists immediately.”

Swedish Prime Minister Frederick Reinfeldt said his administration is making contact with the Ethiopian government over the matter, maintaining that the two were on a journalistic mission and should be released immediately.

Ethiopian authorities arrested Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, contributors to the Swedish photojournalism agency Kontinent, in July after they crossed with rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) into the oil-rich province of Ogaden. 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.

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.

CPJ has documented violations of due process and the politicization of their trial. In October, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi publicly accused the two journalists of being accomplices to terrorists in an interview with the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. Later in the month during a parliamentary session, Zenawi accused journalists working in Ethiopia of being “messengers” with “terrorists” groups, following similar statements made by state media. In November, state prosecutors were forced to admit that footage used as evidence against the journalists had been edited and gunshots added to the audio, to make it appear as if the journalists were participating in weapons training, according to local journalists and reports.

“Guilty as charged, period, unanimous vote. They have shown that they are esteemed journalists, but we cannot conclude that someone with a good reputation doesn’t engage in criminal acts,” Judge Shemsu Sirgaga told the court, according to wire reports.