New York,–Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s public accusations on Monday against two imprisoned Swedish journalists compromise the presumption of their innocence and predetermine the outcome of their case, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The journalists were arrested in Ethiopia in July and charged with terrorism for associating with armed separatists.
In July, Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, contributors to the Sweden-based photo agency Kontinent, were arrested after they crossed with rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) into Ogaden, an oil-rich province where the media is barred independent access. Earlier this year, the Ethiopian government formally designated the ONLF a terrorist group under an anti-terrorism law. Under this 2009 law, journalists risk up to 20 years in prison if the government deems their reporting favorable to groups designated as terrorists. Both journalists were charged without their lawyers present, CPJ research shows.
In a Monday interview with Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, Zenawi said Persson and Schibbye were accomplices to terrorists. “They are, at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organization. They are not journalists,” the prime minister said. “Why would a journalist be involved with a terrorist organization and enter a country with that terrorist organization, escorted by armed terrorists, and participate in a fighting in which this terrorist organization was involved? If that is journalism, I don’t know what terrorism is.”
Zenawi then singled out Persson, citing footage in a government-produced video released by authorities in July in which the journalist is seen handling a weapon. “We have video clippings of this journalist training with the rebels,” the prime minister said. In the same video, Schibbye is heard being told by Ethiopian security to say to the camera, “We came to the Ogaden region to do interviews with the ONLF,” according to CPJ research.
“Since arresting Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, the Ethiopian government has compromised their fundamental rights of defense–chiefly, the presumption of innocence–by portraying them in the media as accomplices to terrorists, charging them with terrorism without the presence of their lawyers, and making accusatory statements against them, like those by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, which appear to predetermine the outcome of their trial before it even starts,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “We call on the Ethiopian judiciary to guarantee both journalists a fair trial in what has become a politicized case.”
In the interview, Zenawi called the journalists’ case “an issue of crime, an ordinary criminal issue,” and said, “Those who want to enter Ethiopia legally are not being prevented from entering the country legally, including journalists.” However, media in Sweden reported on Monday that not one Swedish journalist who had applied for a visa to attend the journalists’ October 18 trial had been approved yet.
With eight journalists behind bars, Ethiopia trails only Eritrea as the foremost jailer of journalists in Africa, according to CPJ research. Ethiopia’s repression of the independent press has also driven into exile the largest number of journalists in the world, according to a CPJ study. Yet Zenawi told Aftenposten that Ethiopia was “moving in the right direction” in terms of human rights. “We have reached a very advanced stage of rule of law and respect for human rights,” he said. “Fundamentally, this is a country where democratic rights of people are respected.”