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Ethiopia: Netizens Shine Spotlight on Trial of Swedish Journalists

The trial of two Swedish journalists accused of terrorism in Ethiopia after being detained during a battle between government troops and rebels started on Tuesday 18 October, 2011. The story has become a hot topic of discussion in both traditional media and online communities worldwide.

According to the ‘Free the Swedish Journalists Johan Persson & Martin Schibbye’ Facebook page:

The two Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were arrested by Ethiopian forces on July 1, 2011 when entering the Ogaden region in Ethiopia as embedded journalists with the ONLF guerrilla. This region is closed for journalists and aid organizations, but Johan and Martin wanted access in order to interview the local population about alleged violation of human rights in the area on a… daily basis. Travelling with the guerrilla was the only way to enter.

In his weekly Amharic feature article titled “Ethiopia – a country that permits public demonstration for animal rights but not for human rights”, Dawit Kebede, managing editor of Awramba Times (one of the few remaining private Amharic weeklies) satirizes the latest interview of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi with Aftenposten as a buy and sell business, since Awramba Times imported the interview and translated it for Amharic readers like an Ethiopian import of a foreign currency.

The two Swedish journalists who are facing terrorism charges in Ethiopia.

With this claim he showed how journalists from the private press have been methodically barred from meeting or interviewing Prime Minster Meles Zenawi for his entire time in power.

In its weekend editorial, Awramba Times appealed for comparable opportunity with state media journalists regarding access to information of government activities. Along with Prime Minster Meles Zenawi’s interview with Aftenposten, Awramba Times has translated an article written by Caelainn Barr and tried to draw attention to current status of journalists and press freedom in Ethiopia with specific reference to the Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye case.

More than 100 opposition activists, journalists and others have been detained under Ethiopia’s broad anti-terror law that can punish someone up to 20 years in prison for simply publishing statements that could indirectly encourage terrorism. The Columbia Journalism Review has reviewed the coverage of Swedish media:

The Swedish press later revealed that Persson and Schibbye were specifically reporting on potential human rights violations committed by Lundin Petroleum, a Swedish-owned energy company with natural-gas operations in Ogaden

BAOBAB has highlighted the status of press freedom in Ethiopia by epitomizing the case of Eskinder Nega, another prominent Ethiopian journalist who has been imprisoned on similar accusations for his criticism of the government following the Arab uprisings.

But this did not go down well with Ethiopian blogger Daniel Berhane:

Criticizing Press Freedom in Ethiopia is a good thing. Promoting Eskinder Nega is a disgrace on the Economist. Let quote from my recent article: ‘Terrifying the Press signals Defeatism’

ZenaEthiopia.com reported that Ethiopia does not want the Swedish journalists involved in a sensitive trial and pointed out that Swedish journalists were denied visas to Ethiopia to cover the trial of imprisoned colleagues.

Lawyers representing the Swedish journalists outside the court in Addis Ababa. Photo taken by Endalk.

Mohammed Keita of The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that several members of the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights raised concerns about Ethiopia's detention of journalists:

The government's high-profile imprisonment of Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, two Swedish journalists arrested in eastern Ethiopia while covering the activities of the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front, which the government designated as a terrorist group, drew a lot of questions, particularly from committee member Krister Thelin. After being repeatedly pressed about the fate of the journalists and details of the legal procedures following their arrests, a flustered Ambassador Fisseha Yimer Aboye, head of the Ethiopian delegation, told the committee that no further information would be provided. Rodley pressed the delegation to explain the legal procedures surrounding the arrests of two other journalists, Woubshet Taye and Reeyot Alemu, on suspicions of terrorism.

A Facebook page dedicated to raising awareness and funds for legal support has received more than 2,775 likes. Many participants of the page are focusing on their solidarity with Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson as the government attempts influence the trail process.

On a Facebook page created by Swedish European Member of Parliament, Cecilia Wikström, she has voiced concern that:

Cecilia Wikstrom asked yesterday two written questions to the EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton on how the EU can ensure that John and Martin's trial is true, and follows international standards and what it does to protect journalists from being accused of crimes while carrying out their job. We hope that this can be of any help and send our thoughts to John and Martin families.

An online petition has also been created with over 2,741 signatures. Most people on the page demanded the government of Ethiopia to release the journalists quickly. Lotta Westerberg, a supporter of the cause, is more vocal of all. She urged the online community to sign on the page:

Please sign the petition. Part of the story is that the journalists were investigating Lundin Petroleum, charged with being involved with war crimes in Sudan. Mr. Carl Bildt, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, is a former board member

Endalk looked at how the local press in Ethiopia has been covering the issues just before the beginning of the trial:

A week before the commencement of the trial of the two Swedish journalists- Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye- charged with terrorism much of the global press was already reporting the case following Prime Minster Meles Zenawi’s interview with the Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten. Now, primer’s public allegations against two imprisoned journalists have become a dominant theme on pro-government media of Ethiopia. Interestingly enough, Walta Information Center, a pro-government private news and information service, that had been reporting about the Swedish-Eritrean journalist, Dawit Isaak and its subsequent concern of the Swedish authorities as Dawit remains jailed in the neighboring, Eretria kept shtoom about Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye

The trial of Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye will continue on November 1, 2011.

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