Last Updated: Wednesday, 01 October 2014, 08:57 GMT

Ethiopia: Free journalists facing terrorism charges, halt attacks on media freedom

Publisher Article 19
Publication Date 1 November 2011
Cite as Article 19, Ethiopia: Free journalists facing terrorism charges, halt attacks on media freedom, 1 November 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4eba8e872.html [accessed 1 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

ARTICLE 19 condemns the detention and trial for terrorism of two Swedish investigative journalists - Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson - and calls for the terrorism charges against them to be dropped and for their immediate release. The trial, set to resume 1 November 2011 is the latest example Ethiopia's broad and ambiguous anti-terrorism legislation being used to restrict the right to freedom of expression in violation of international law.

ARTICLE 19 is concerned that Schibbye and Persson – charged for engaging in terrorist activities, abetting an illegal terrorist group and entering the country illegally - will not be granted a fair trial as the anti-terrorism legislation deprives defendants of the right to be presumed innocent and of protection against the use of evidence obtained through torture. 

Five other journalists are currently being charged under the anti-terrorism legislation in Ethiopia, although it is not yet clear whether a court date has been set for their trial. More than 150 people, reportedly many of them journalists and opposition activists, have been arrested since May 2011 under the law.

The comments of Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Meles Zanawi, are equally alarming and indicative of a potential "trial" by politicians. Prime Minister Zanawi denied that Schibbye and Persson were journalists and claimed that the pair are, "at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organisation".

Reporter Schibbye and photographer Persson were arrested in July 2011 after crossing from Puntland into Ethiopia's troubled Ogaden region. If the court convicts them, they face up to 20 years imprisonment. The two journalists have pleaded "not guilty" to the terrorist charges but have admitted entering the country without proper documentation. Persson stated during a court hearing that their intention was to describe the conflict and investigate human rights abuses by Ethiopian troops in the Ogaden region where foreign companies, including the Swedish firm Lundin Petroleum, have interests.  

"The protection of freedom of expression in the context of combating terrorism has been a matter of significant debate for a number of years. The trial of Schibbye and Persson spotlights Ethiopia's repressive press freedom record and highlights the ongoing use of the anti-terrorism legislation to silence national and international journalists working in Ethiopia," said Dr Agnes Callamard, ARTICLE 19 Executive Director.

"Unfortunately, this case is just the tip of the iceberg and demonstrates that even international media is not immune to being silenced by the Ethiopian government.  Since June 2011, the government has charged at least seven journalists with terrorism," continued Dr Callamard.   

In an analysis of the Ethiopian Anti-terrorism Proclamation, released in March 2010, ARTICLE 19 found that the legislation undermines international protections on freedom of expression. Of particular concern was: the broad definition of terrorism, which would appear to apply to many legitimate acts of expression; the undermining of protection of journalists sources including by surveillance and an excessive duty to cooperate and provide information; and vaguely defined provisions on "encouraging" terrorism that would criminalise the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and have a real chilling effect on debate on matters of public interest. 

ARTICLE 19 believes that the international community – particularly Sweden and other European states - should respond firmly and resolutely to the situation by both calling for the immediate release of the two Swedish journalists and by urging the Ethiopian government to halt all blatant abuses of the right to freedom of expression, including by repealing the anti-terrorism legislation. 

Copyright notice: Copyright ARTICLE 19

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