Swedish support for jailed colleagues in Ethiopia, Eritrea

By Tom Rhodes/CPJ East Africa Consultant on October 17, 2011 4:47 PM ET

If you pass by Kronoberg Prison in Sweden's capital, Stockholm, you will see journalists chained to its gates. They have committed no crime. For over a week, journalists have taken turns locking themselves up in front of the prison to raise awareness of the imprisonment of three colleagues held in the Horn of Africa.

The show of solidarity is intended to highlight the cases of Dawit Isaac, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist held without charge or trial for over a decade in Eritrea, and Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, freelancers with the Sweden-based Kontinent photo agency, who have been jailed in Ethiopia since July facing terrorism charges.

Isaac co-founded Eritrea's now-banned largest newspaper Setit but was arrested with other journalists and political dissidents in a brutal September 2001 crackdown. Schibbye and Persson were arrested in eastern Ethiopia while reporting on the activities of separatist rebels the Ethiopian government formally designated as terrorists under a sweeping anti-terrorism law. Schibbye and Persson risk up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Eritrea holds the ignominious title of Africa's leading jailer of journalists while Ethiopia takes second place.

Freelance journalists Casper Hedberg and Jacob Zocherman (Journalisternas Solidariska Fängelseaktion)

The journalist community in Sweden is highlighting the plight of these three journalists and calling on the Swedish government to do more to foster their release. "The Swedish government is yet to make a clear stand for these and all journalists' right to do their job without being thrown in jail," says one of the organizers, Johan Wirfält, editor of the Swedish magazine Rodeo. Based on public statements made by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, many journalists within the Swedish community have started questioning the government's commitment to securing the release of the journalists, Wirfält told me.

Recent statements by Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, have further raised concerns that Schibbye and Persson will not receive a fair trial. In describing Schibbye and Persson as accomplices to terrorists and not journalists in an interview with Norwegian paper Aftenpostern, Zenawi brushed aside any expectation that the journalists would be granted the presumption of innocence, a fundamental right of defense.

In the same interview, Zenawi questioned why Schibbye and Persson entered Ethiopia illegally "with a terrorist organization," and concluded "If that is journalism, I don't know what terrorism is." In fact, the premier holds the answer, in his government's policy of banning independent media access to the Ogaden region where oil exploitation and allegations of human rights abuses in the midst of a low-level insurgency go uninvestigated. "Everyone knows if you want to report in a war zone and not get killed immediately, you have to be embedded with one side of the conflict -- that does not mean the journalists are supporting their war, they are merely reporting the war," Wirfält said. Schibbye and Persson's journalism career is widely visible in the articles and photos published in some of Sweden's major publications, said journalist and protest organizer Sara Murillo Cortes. "All Swedes have seen photos taken by these journalists, there is so much proof that they have worked as journalists before, there is simply no discussion on that."

So, on any given day roughly 25 Swedish journalists, including well-known veterans, can be seen standing outside Kronoberg prison in chains, Cortes told me. It is not easy at 40 degrees F (5 degrees C) to remain chained outside a Swedish prison. "Socks are most important. You have to wear a lot of socks. Not that it compares to being in prison in Ethiopia or Eritrea," Wirfält said. Well-wishers, including police working at the prison, buy them cups of tea and coffee. Sweden's press is also supportive. The country's leading daily Dagens Nyheter ("Today's News") ran its main op-ed on the subject, among many others.

The group plans to keep their chains on until Schibbye and Persson's trial on Tuesday in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. "We wanted to show a physical presence, not just a Facebook campaign where you simply press a button," Cortes said. "This protest is a call for solidarity. Journalists must stand up for press freedom because what has happened to these three could happen to any of us."


Dawit Isaac, eritrean not Swedish

I don't know about the ones in Ethiopia but as for the one in Eritrea, I hope you & him stay where you for ever.

Interesting, so calling oneself a reporter is green light to hang out with terrorists and cross international borders illegally...Or does that only apply to White reporters in developing nations?

Thanks for making my job harder.

Sweden and other donors support Zenawi of Ethiopia for a long time while million Ethiopian who are crying by the regime asked them to stop supporting they are harvesting what they saw.
However, we are besides of Schybye,Persoon,Dawit and other Sweedish journalists who are in solidarity.
for me the time is now for Westerns and the US to act on the regimes of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Do you mean that because you guys gave these countries "aid", you can enter without any legal document as you wish ? Will your government allow an Ethiopian journalist to enter your country without any legal visa because he wants to report from there???

Rather, I will tell you - you have to respect sovereignity of countries and their laws as you want your sovereignity and laws be respected. These so called journalists are illegal to me (lets forget the terrorism issue) as they entered that country illegally. Plus they are in a court which is transparent and open to any one who wants to attend. Only after the court decision that one can complain or criticize including me (I will be not happy if they are released free). The rule of law must be respected

Sorry, I arrived late (18.20) soaked with the rain yesterday evening @Kronobergshäktet to show my solidarity to jailed Swedish journalists in my home country which is 139th in RSF's 2010 Press Freedom Index unfortunately everybody was left:( but after seeing/reading what was available there, I was under the impression that the focus is mainly on the Swedish journalists (Dawit, Johan, Martin) as if there're no journalists who're jailed on the same doctored charges
What about Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Wubshet Taye and many others who're being incarcerated by the dictator ever since he took power 20yrs ago? Are we less human than Johan, Martin & Dawit? I thought journalism & journalists are expected to serve impartially everybody regardless of color of skin, race, religion etc differences. There's so much outcry in the Swedish media about their fellow citizens' arrest which I understand why and yet the sufferings of Ethiopians were/are downplayed as if they don't exist. I don't think it's fair, does two lines cost a lot to write about the sufferings of more than a dozen of Ethiopian journalists? Or is it a strategy not upset the wounded tiger @Arat Kilo palace?

Well, I am a little taken aback by the whole thing in this article. There are dozens of prominent Ethiopian journalists in prison. Some of them are mothers separated from their young children. Europeans have not peeped a word in protest to Meles Zenawi when they paraded him in, virtually, every meeting they held. Now, two white boys got trapped in his web, all of a sudden, Europe is concerned about fair trial in Ethiopia! How convenient! As a matter of fact, among all the journalists Meles Zenawi is holding, these two actually committed crimes. They entered the country illegally armed to their teeth, flanked by a group designated terrorist. It is a little hypocrite of you. Send a couple of your journalists to enter USA illegally with some islamist group designated terrorist. Guess what? They will be so happy to see them before they throw a state dinner for them. That ridiculous! I believe they should be given appropriate but not harsh verdicts. Giving aid to a country does not give you the right to violate it.

According to Meles, when an Arab goes to a west country, shoots his gun at troops in behalf of an outlawed terrorist group, gets arrested, the media will be all over him a terrorist. Now reverse this situation, a white person gets caught while wielding a gun and shooting it at troops in behalf of a terrorist organization he becomes a journalist according to the western media.

Give me a break. These Swedes are terrorists and will be charged as such.

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