Ethiopian security forces detained Persson and Schibbye, freelancers with the Sweden-based photo agency Kontinent, in a shootout with rebels of the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front, or ONLF. The journalists, who were slightly injured in the crossfire, had embedded with ONLF fighters after crossing into Ethiopia from neighboring Somalia.
The ONLF has been waging a low-level insurgency since 1984 in Ethiopia’s Somali-speaking, oil-rich Ogaden region; the Ethiopian government has banned independent media access to the area amid allegations of human rights abuses. The Ethiopian Parliament formally designated the ONLF a terrorist entity in May 2011 under a far-reaching anti-terrorism law. Under the law, journalists reporting statements or activities by terror-designated entities risk up to 20 years in prison if the government deems their coverage favorable to the groups.
Shortly after Persson and Schibbye’s arrests, Ethiopia’s government-controlled public broadcaster ERTA showed a video montage posted on the pro-government Ogaden website Cakaara News, presenting the journalists as accomplices to terrorists, according to CPJ research. Part of the footage appeared to have been shot by the journalists themselves, including clips showing them taking photos and interviewing people in refugee camps, and Persson handling an assault rifle. Other clips were shot by authorities after the arrests. “We came to the Ogaden region to do interviews with the ONLF,” Schibbye is heard saying, speaking under instructions while in custody.
Using a provision of the anti-terrorism law, which allows for extended detention without charge, Ethiopian public prosecutors held Persson and Schibbye without charge for 68 days, according to CPJ research. On September 6, Persson and Schibbye were taken to court and charged with terrorism, without the presence of their lawyers, Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesman Anders Jörle told CPJ.
In an October interview with Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said the journalists “are, at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organization. They are not journalists.” He referenced the government-produced video released in July, saying, “We have video clippings of this journalist training with the rebels.” CPJ condemned the statements as predetermining the outcome of the journalists’ trial.
In October, Persson and Schibbye pleaded not guilty to charges of involvement in terrorist activities but acknowledged entering the country illegally, according to news reports. They were convicted on both charges in December and sentenced to 11 years in prison apiece.
Persson had done work for Kontinent for five years, covering dangerous assignments across the globe, including the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to colleague Jacob Zocherman. Schibbye, an experienced reporter, had written, among other things, a series of reports on human trafficking in Asia, Zocherman said.
Persson and Schibbye were being held at Kality Prison in Addis Ababa.