Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye appear on state television. (ETV/YouTube)
Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye appear on state television. (ETV/YouTube)

Ethiopia should release journalists still in prison

Nairobi, September 11, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on the Ethiopian government to set free six journalists in prison for their work, a day after Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were pardoned and released from Kality Prison in the capital Addis Ababa.

Persson, a photojournalist, and Schibbye, a reporter, were arrested on July 1, 2011, and charged under Ethiopia’s far-reaching anti-terrorism law, convicted in politicized trials, and sentenced to 11-year prison sentences. Following their convictions, the journalists opted to forego an appeal and submitted an application to the Ministry of Justice Pardon Board.

Monday, the two appeared on Ethiopian state television and expressed regret for entering the country with armed separatists of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and without documentation. The Ethiopian government denies the media independent access to the oil-rich, Somali-speaking Ogaden region and has formally designated the ONLF a terrorist group. The two freelancers were on assignment for the Swedish news agency Kontinent investigating the activities of a company affiliated with the Swedish oil firm Lundin Petroleum, according to wire reports. They were captured after a gun battle between security forces and ONLF insurgents, in which both were wounded.

Since 2011, the government of Ethiopia has convicted 11 independent journalists and bloggers under the sweeping anti-terrorism law, some in absentia. Six journalists who remain in Ethiopian prisons are award-winning blogger Eskinder Nega; award-winning columnist Reeyot Alemu; Woubshet Taye of the now-defunct weekly Awramba Times; Eritrean journalists Saleh Idris Gama and Tesfalidet Kidane Tesfazghi, who have been held since 2006; and Yusuf Getachew, editor of YeMuslimoch Guday (Muslim Affairs).

“Martin Schibbye, Johan Persson and other journalists in Ethiopia have paid a heavy price for trying to uncover what the government is seeking to hide,” said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “As Ethiopia begins a new year today, we urge the country’s new leadership to truly begin afresh by releasing the six journalists still in prison.”

Persson and Schibbye–who shared a cell with about 250 inmates and one toilet–are recuperating in an undisclosed location outside Ethiopia before reuniting with family in Sweden, Persson’s father told the Swedish news agency TT.

The decision to pardon the two Swedes was approved by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, according to a statement by Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. Twice in October 2011, Meles publicly accused them of being accomplices to terrorists. 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 they were participating in weapons training, according to local journalists and news reports. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, in his personal blog, claimed “quiet diplomacy” between the late prime minister and Swedish officials led to their release.