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Analysis: 'Commission must stand up for human rights in Ethiopia'

20.12.2011 - 15:01

The Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were arrested by Ethiopian military in July. Having entered the country illegally in order to investigate alleged human-rights violations in the closed Ogaden region, they now stand charged with terrorism.

The Swedish government chose to act through so called quiet diplomacy, a course of action which has been criticized and which has also proven to be unsuccessful in the past when trying to free the Swedish journalist Dawit Isaac, who after ten years remains imprisoned in Eritrea. But choosing silence is not an option for those journalists who see it as their job to tell the stories that would otherwise remain untold.

Because what does it mean when a government imprisons journalists and charges them with terrorism in order to quiet them? Whose story will not be heard then?

If Ethiopian journalists could report freely they might be able to confirm what has been documented by organisations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders for years. Accounts of villages burned to the ground, systematic rape, displacement and war crimes in the closed off Ogaden region where foreign gas and oil companies prospect new findings. But attempting to disclose what the Ethiopian government would rather keep hidden comes at a high price.

The past decade of repression has led the Committee to Protect Journalists to rank Ethiopia as the country with the highest number of exiled journalists in the world. Since June this year eleven journalists have been accused of terrorism and at least 100 members of the opposition have been arrested in 2011. In November alone six journalists were charged with terrorism. One of them is Mesfin Negash. Forced into exile because of his journalistic work he is currently seeking asylum in Sweden. The broadly formulated Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which was introduced in 2009, has become an effective tool in the hands of the Ethiopian government to silence opposition and critical media. The two Swedish journalists have also been charged in compliance with this law, which makes it an offence for journalists to even refer to individuals or groups that have been declared terrorist.

What, then, should be the reaction of the international community? How should the EU react to what is happening in Ethiopia, the country that is its biggest recipient of developmental aid? Is it acceptable that human rights organizations and journalists are prevented from entering the Ogaden province to investigate the alleged crimes being committed there? That the research team of Amnesty International is expelled from the country and that an Ethiopian employee of the UN is arrested, for talking to the rebel movement ONLF, while in the process of negotiating the release of hostages taken by them?

On several occasions since July, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) representing journalists’ unions and associations in Europe, called for dropping the charges against the two journalists, who were arrested and charged with terrorism as a result of engaging in a normal and vital act of journalism. The EFJ also made the point that Ethiopian journalists themselves face charges under the terrorism act.

One would expect that the immediate response of political leaders in a country like Sweden, which has a reputation of defending the freedom of expression and freedom of the press, would be one of unreserved support for those rights. But instead we have heard Swedish politicians say that we should not interfere with the Ethiopian judicial system. Is this really the appropriate response in a case where the judicial proceedings are entirely based on a law that fundamentally violates basic human rightsand goes against Ethiopia’s international commitments? Do the requirements for a fair trial even exist in such a case?The trial against Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye has been open in the sense that foreign journalists have been allowed to attend it. But the charges made against them stem from a law in itself unlawful. The international community must clearly condemn any such law. It is high time that the leaders of Europe show that it is possible to combat terrorism while simultaneously upholding the rule of law and human rights.

It is remarkable that Europe has not reacted to Ethiopia’s failure to act in accordance with its international commitments sooner and more forcefully, when the rights of so many Ethiopians have been violated. Europe must call on Ethiopia to immediately modify its Terrorist Act to bring it into accordance with international human rights law. Europe must also stand up for the role of the media as the watchdog of democracy bystating that what is happening now in Ethiopia is an issue larger than the case of the two Swedish journalists. The trial currently going on in Addis Ababa, where all parties are acting as expected, is in fact emblematic of the injustice done to the Ethiopian people by its own government. 

Signed:

Sara Torsner, Free the Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye

Anne Markowski, Free the Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye

Lise Bergh, secretary-general, Amnesty International Sweden

Jean-Francois Julliard, secretary-general, Reporters Without Borders

Jesper Bengtsson, president Reporters Without Borders Sweden

Aidan White, Editor, Media Diversity Institute

Arne König, European Federation of Journalists