By Alemayehu Fentaw Weldemariam
Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, two Swedish journalists, were detained on 1 July 2011 after they were captured in Ethiopia during a fight between rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and a contingent of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) in Ogaden. The two journalists were charged with violations of the Ethiopia anti-terrorism law and both acknowledged during their trial that they had entered Ethiopia illegally via Somalia accompanied by rebels from ONLF. However, they argued that their contacts with the ONLF were intended to help them enter a region the Ethiopian authorities would not allow journalists to enter. They alleged their purpose was to report on the activities of a Swedish oil company, Lundin Petroleum AB, in the Ogaden as well as allegations of human rights violations. Both of them denied terrorism charges, including claims that they had been given weapons training. They were, however, sentenced in December 2011 by the Third Criminal Bench of the Federal High Court to seven years in prison on the charge of abetting terrorism, which they denied, and another three years and 3 months for entering Ethiopia illegally, a charge to which they pleaded guilty. They were pardoned by the Ethiopian Government on 10 September 2012 and released the next day after serving nine months of their sentences.
Dr. Sisay Alemahu is an Ethiopian legal scholar at Åbo Akademi University in Finland. He posted on Facebook, “I have been asked about a hundred times about the imprisonment of the 2 Swedish journalists – with an undertone of ‘how did the government of your country dare to do so?’. The funny thing is that almost all those who asked me do not have any idea about the situation of journalists in Ethiopia. For many, it is the ‘Swedish brand’ that made the whole thing ridiculous. Nobody, including the journalists after their release, talks about their illegal entry into the country, etc. What I found more appalling is their allegation that they would have been ‘shot dead anytime along the period of their detention’ and their ‘degrading treatment’ without referring at all to how other Ethiopian prisoners in their situation were treated. I would never condone the imprisonment and mistreatment of any journalist as such, but the whole story about the SWEDISH journalists has been curiously funny. They are now vowing ‘to give back’ – help Ethiopia realize freedom of the press – I wish them luck.”
I replied to Sisay in the same Facebook thread, writing that “I think what makes the case of the Swedish journalists curious is not so much their national origin as the charge of terrorism. I beg to differ with your assertions. Getting indicted with charges of terrorism and aiding and abetting terrorism is fundamentally different from that of entering without a visa. How often do you think journalists cross borders in order to carry out their professional duties in conflict zones? How do you think journalists manage to get the news that we watch on a cable TV sitting comfortably in our couches or that we read in the papers sipping coffee almost every day?”
The surest way for a journalist to get the news is to be there, but gaining access to what can be described as a conflict zone is not easy. In order to do their jobs in a conflict zone, foreign journalists essentially have two options: either obtain a visa or enter illegally. Even large media outlets and wire news services such as Reuters, CNN, AFP, AP, and Bloomberg get us the news by maintaining correspondents on the ground at a great personal risk. Sisay may be unclear about this professional hazard as well as, for example, the many foreign journalists who entered Tigray via the Sudan in the company of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to cover the humanitarian crisis that followed the civil war and drought in Tigray in the recent past.
Now the issue is whether sovereign states have to hold foreign journalists criminally liable for entering its territory without a visa. Any state has the right to control its borders and to establish entry requirements for foreign nationals, including making illegal entry a criminal offense. But that specific offense is different from the offense of terrorism. The Ogaden region has not been freely accessible to foreign journalists since December 2006 and, according to human rights watchdogs, the region has experienced terrible humanitarian crises since then, in great measure caused by the use of scorched-earth tactics by the ENDF in its operations against the ONLF, as well as to chronic drought.
At the risk of being called unpatriotic, I stand with Schibbye and Persson and don’t flinch in defending them. You can call them many things, but they are not terrorists. They are journalists exercising the internationally recognized freedom of the press. As the phrase goes, “they gots to do what they gots to do.”
Dr. Firew Kebede, an Ethiopian legal scholar at Deakin University School of Law, Melbourne, Australia, joined the debate. He wrote, “I think both of you are highlighting different aspects of the issue. Sisay, I hear you when you say that the matter received so much attention because it involved foreign nationals, particularly from the west, while numerous Ethiopians are being sent to prison on the ill-conceived “terrorism charges”. But even among Ethiopians, we only tend to talk of some high profile victims of these “terrorism” charges, while there are several hundreds being sent to prisons not only in Addis but also in so many small towns around the country. Elsewhere I stated that it is ridiculous for TPLF to accuse foreign journalists of terrorism while they fully know how western journalists were visiting them in Tigray mountains during the armed struggle without getting visas or papers from the government. They are being disingenuous. Another point, which is mute now, is that weren’t the Swedish journalists on a mission to make a documentary on corrupt Swedish politicians connected to a shoddy oil exploration contract in Ogaden? It seemed to me that their goal primarily was not to report on the war itself but on the oil deals? Did this contribute? What do you guys know about this?”
In the Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official weekly publication, A Week in the Horn, the Ministry claims, “In fact, Schibbye and Persson were very fortunate in being acquitted of terrorism charges after the court found they had not actually been involved in carrying out any terrorist activity. In fact, luckily for them, as the group they accompanied was clearly on an active mission, they were caught before any such activity took place.” An Ethiopian-American attorney, Bereket Tesfu, asserts also in the same vein that the two Swedish journalists were lucky to “(l)et alone be imprisoned, they should be counting their blessings that they survived a military confrontation between the Ethiopian army and ONLF and are already back home with their families.” What’s so disturbing about this line of thinking is its tendency to reduce the rule of law to good luck or fortune.
It would not be a mistake to think that the two Swedish journalists entered Ethiopia via Somalia knowing full well the legal risks of their actions. They were not ignorant nor did they miscalculate. They were aware that if arrested, they ran the risk of being convicted of illegally entering Ethiopia and sentenced to the maximum penalty for that the offense. But it is ridiculous to think that Schibbye and Persson were aiding and abetting terrorism. The Ethiopian Government declares that the ONLF is a terrorist organization and that being affiliated with it is by itself criminal. Well, my response to that assertion is: “One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” The Ethiopian Government’s terrorism designation of the ONLF could easily have been applied to the TPLF if it had not succeeded in winning the civil war. What say you?
The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry also claims by way of a refutation that these two Swedish journalists did not enter Ethiopia to cover the activities of a Swedish oil company as they alleged, because there was no Swedish oil company operating in the region by the time Schibbye and Persson entered Ethiopia. Rather, according to the Foreign Ministry, they were in Ethiopia “to produce ‘evidence’ of atrocities” committed by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces against the Somali people of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region and to derail ongoing peace negotiations between a faction of the ONLF and the government.
In refuting the allegation that they were in Ethiopia to cover the business activities of a Swedish oil company, the Foreign Ministry makes a bold statement to the effect that “Lundin in fact sold its Ethiopian oil concessions to Africa Oil Corporation over three years ago, and Lundin now has nothing to do with any activities by Africa Oil in the Somali Regional State. Africa Oil itself is quite open about its activities and is in fact on record as noting that it hasn’t seen any of the violence claimed by the ONLF in the areas in which it operates.” The most surprising element of this statement is not so much the affirmation of the cessation of Lundin Petroleum AB’s activities in Ethiopia resulting from the transfer by sale of its oil concessions, but the use of Africa Oil Corporation as a witness to the Ethiopia Government’s impeccable human rights records in the Ogaden region. Whatever the merits of Africa Oil Corporation’s testimonials as to the state of human rights in Ethiopia, the truth of the matter is that Africa Oil Corporation is a subsidiary of the Lundin Group of Companies, which are under the overall management and guidance of Lukas H. Lundin and Ian H. Lundin. Africa Oil Corporation is an oil and gas company with assets in Kenya, Puntland, Ethiopia, and Mali as well as through its 45% equity interest in Horn Petroleum Corporation. The Company’s shares are listed on the TSX Venture Exchange under the symbol “AOI” and on the NASDAQ OMX First North Exchange under the symbol “AOI”. What emerges from the Foreign Ministry’s audaciously never-before-heard defense of Lundin Petroleum and Africa Oil Corporation is the whiff of something suspicious about the award of the concessions and its impact on the security of the region. In this regard, I can’t help but agree with Dr. Firew Kebede’s suggestion that the atrocities were not the only issue that Schibbye and Persson wanted to cover. It seems that they also wanted to cover the oil concessions concluded with Lundin Petroleum, its probably unseemly corporate behavior, and the subtle manner it tried to exit from the scene by transferring its Ethiopian oil concessions to what initially seemed a completely different company. It now seems that the Swedish journalists entered Ethiopia with the double purpose of exposing the atrocities committed by the ENDF and the activities of Africa Oil Corporation, a Canadian company belonging to the Swedish Lundin family. Looming shades of the Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest?
On an absurd note, however, what Ethiopian authorities did in response to Schibbye and Persson’s media appearance once they returned to Sweden was to block domestic Ethiopian access to the website of the Swedish state broadcaster Sveriges Television (SVT). If these journalists had been Ethiopians, their fate would have been same as Judge Birtukan Mideksa’s – revocation of their pardon and reincarceration. It was the speech that Judge Mideksa gave to her supporters in Sweden that got her into trouble again in Ethiopia.
What lessons did Schibbye and Persson learn from the Ethiopian legal system? One thing that is too important to ignore, which is that in Ethiopia journalists who investigate the government or criticize its policies and practices, whether home-grown or foreign, are presumed to be terrorists until they enter a plea for a pardon. This is currently the only way to secure a release from imprisonment and the larger prison called Ethiopia, because the Ethiopian authorities make no distinction between journalism and terrorism. Every dissenting journalist is presumed to be guilty until proven innocent. And innocence is only proven by pardon pleading.
Sisay’s observation can’t be downplayed none the less, given that Ethiopia’s own sons and daughters such as Woubshet Taye, Eskinder Nega, and Reeyot Alemu are still languishing in jail for no fault of theirs. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi once remarked, “If that is journalism, I don’t know what terrorism is.” But, all I need to do now is to turn it around, “If that is terrorism, I don’t know what journalism is.”
Alemayehu Fentaw Weldemariam is a visiting scholar at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and specializes in the Horn of Africa. The views expressed are his own.