Reporters Without Borders has just visited Ethiopia, where two Swedish journalists, Kontinent news agency reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson, were sentenced to 11 years in prison on 29 December on charges of entering the country illegally and supporting terrorism.
During the visit, from 9 to 12 January, the two Swedish journalists decided to request a presidential pardon instead of appealing against their conviction. “In Ethiopia, there is a long tradition of pardons and we have chosen to leave it to this tradition,” they said, announcing their decision on 10 January in Addis Ababa’s Kality prison.
“Persson and Schibbye were arrested with members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front but they never supported terrorism,” Reporters Without Borders said. “They went to the Ogaden as journalists. We are now in a new phase, one of political negotiation, and we hope that the Ethiopian authorities, the National Pardon Board and everyone else involved can reach an agreement under which they are released quickly.”
During the visit, Reporters Without Borders also assessed the current state of media freedom in Ethiopia and the constraints on its journalists, two of whom were convicted on terrorism charges on 19 January in Addis Ababa.
A repressive legislative arsenal and dwindling room for expression
Even if recent years have been marked by tension between the government and privately-owned media and surveillance of the most outspoken journalists, Reporters Without Borders recognizes that there is space for freedom of expression in Ethiopia.
As well as two state-owned dailies, the Amharic-language Addis Zemen and the English-language Ethiopian Herald, there are also privately-owned newspapers such as the Amharic-language Reporter, Addis Admas, Sendek, Mesenazeria and Fitih, along with the English-language The Reporter and The Daily Monitor. The privately-owned newspapers are routinely critical of government policies and at times provocative.
But, in the course of its observations and the interviews it conducted during this visit, Reporters Without Borders confirmed that freedom of expression has been on the wane for some time.
This has been seen, for example, in the fact that two Amharic-language weeklies, Addis Neger and Awramba Times, ceased to publish when their journalists fled the country, in December 2009 in the case of the first, and November 2011 in the case of the second.
In the course of the past three years, Ethiopia has adopted laws targeting civil society and combating terrorism that have arguably rode roughshod over rights guaranteed by Ethiopia’s constitution. It is partly this legislative arsenal that has had the direct effect of reducing the democratic space and freedom of expression.
Taboo subjects and working as a journalist
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Ethiopian journalist who works for one of the weeklies told Reporters Without Borders: “There are red lines we cannot trespass while covering news stories. For example, the Oromo Liberation Front, which has long been a separatist movement, announced a few days ago on a website based abroad that it was abandoning its demand for autonomy. This is big news for Ethiopia but we cannot cover it in the local press because the authorities regard the OLF as a terrorist organization and referring to it might get you arrested.”
The journalist added: “We cannot publish the views of certain people, either. The journalist Mesfin Negash of Addis Neger, for example, is wanted on a terrorism charge. As he is living in exile, he can still write articles and offer them to newspapers in Ethiopia. But who is going to take the risk of publishing them? You could possibly be picked up at once and face charges. The law forbids it, so it is indirect censorship.”
Reporters Without Borders is concerned that when journalists with the privately-owned media dare to persist with their fierce criticisms of the state, it happens that they become the targets of criticism or smear campaigns in the state-owned or pro-government media.
Widespread self-censorship and fear of arrest have also at times led journalists to flee the country. After those who fled in December 2009, at least another three left in November 2011. They were Abebe Tola, also known as “Abe Tokichaw,” a well-known columnist for the Fitih and Awramba Times weeklies, his colleague Tesfaye Degu of Netsanet and Awramba Times editor Dawit Kebede.
Journalists facing a possible death sentence on terrorism charges
Reporters Without Borders wrote to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in August 2011 requesting an investigation into the condition in which two journalists were being held – Awramba Times deputy editor Woubeshet Taye, who was arrested on 19 June, and Fitih columnist Reyot Alemu, who was arrested on 21 June. The letter did not get a reply.
In Addis Ababa, Reporters Without Borders asked the NGO “Justice for all, Prison Fellowship Ethiopia” to make enquiries about their situation and work with the government to assure that they are held in acceptable conditions while in detention.
On 19 January, an Addis Ababa court found these two journalists, along with a number of opposition figures, guilty of participating in a terrorist organization and preparing a terrorist attack. The charges carry a possible death penalty or life imprisonment. The court is due to issue sentences on a later date.
“Was there any irrefutable evidence of their involvement in terrorist activity produced in court?” Reporters Without Borders asked. “As showed by the prosecutor, both may have been in contact with opposition figures, which was risky, but the court should have considered the possibility that it could have been done in the exercise of freedom of expression. We are very disturbed by the idea that these two journalists may well receive harsh sentences just for expressing opinions.
“The Ethiopian government says the court just followed the law, but this law could violate journalists’ freedom to practice their profession, a freedom guaranteed by the constitution. A journalist carries a tough duty to proving information to the public. He needs special protection in order to fulfill this duty. This law in Ethiopia no longer allows journalists to do their job in that sense.”
Reporters Without Borders is pleased that the head of its Africa Desk, Ambroise Pierre, and the president of its Swedish Section, Jesper Bengtsson, were able to carry out this fact-finding visit to Ethiopia. They requested an opportunity to discuss the different issues with communication minister and government spokesman Bereket Simon, but he could not be available to receive the Reporters Without Borders delegation.