Ethiopia sentenced two Swedish journalists to 11 years in jail last week on charges of supporting terrorism after the pair illegally entered the country with a Somali rebel group, report IFEX's international members. Photojournalist Johan Persson and reporter Martin Schibbye were arrested by Ethiopian security forces in July during a gunfight between Ethiopian soldiers and rebels in the no-go region of Ogaden, and were put on trial in October.
Judge Shemsu Sirgaga ruled on 27 December that Persson and Schibbye should suffer "rigorous imprisonment" following their convictions in December, and said the verdict "should satisfy the goal of peace and security," reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Prosecutors had asked for 18 years in prison for the pair, says CPJ.
Speaking from Stockholm, Karin Schibbye, Martin's mother, told the "Guardian", "It's absurd. You can't really take in that they are sentenced to 11 years. It's obviously so wrong… They are innocent. They entered the country illegally and should be punished for that and nothing else."
She was allowed no phone calls or letters to her son, but has been able to visit him in prison after obtaining a permit from the Swedish embassy. Conditions were harsh, she said, adding, "It is not a nice place. Their dormitory is overcrowded, with 70 beds for 200 inmates."
The journalists claimed they were investigating alleged human rights abuses against ethnic Somalis in Ogaden, where there has been a fight for independence singe the 1970s. They had been using the outlawed separatist group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), as guides. According to the International Press Institute (IPI), Ethiopia declared the ONLF a terrorist organisation in June.
IFEX members maintain the journalists were simply doing their job, and were embedded with the rebels so they could report on the region and on the activities of a Swedish oil firm with interests there.
"The purpose of the verdict is to scare away journalists from the area," Fredrec Alm, editor and vice-president at the Sweden-based Kontinental photo agency - for which Persson and Schibbye worked - told IPI.
IFEX members have said the anti-terrorism law used to try the pair is overly broad and ambiguous and is being used by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to crack down on dissent, and freedom of the media in particular. Read ARTICLE 19's detailed analysis of Ethiopia's anti-terrorism legislation here.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) plans to mobilise its members and partners in Africa and Europe to overturn the verdict and secure the reporters' freedom. "The Swedish Union of Journalists is now going to work closely with the journalists' families and is demanding that the Swedish Government ensures this injustice is remedied and our colleagues can return to their families and colleagues," said the European arm of IFJ.
The Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International (WiPC) is urging appeal letters to be sent to your nearest Ethiopian diplomatic representative. For a list of embassies, click here.
With seven journalists behind bars, Ethiopia trails only Eritrea among Africa's worst jailers of journalists, according to CPJ. Ethiopia's repression of the media has driven the world's largest number of journalists into exile over the past decade, CPJ says.