Photo AFP

The arrest of two Swedish journalists in Ethiopia raises concerns about Ethiopia’s overall policy in the Somali region.
By Stephanie Doetzer

Thu, 07/07/2011

Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson did something that only few journalists tried in recent years: They defied the Ethiopian governments ban on journalists in the Somali region of Ethiopia and illegally crossed into the country from Somalia.

On July 1st, shorty after their arrival, the two Swedes were arrested by Ethiopian authorities. “I haven’t been in touch with them since June 27”, says Anna Roxvell, a close friend and colleague of the journalists. “Our agreement was that they’d send a message every three days, even if it’s just a short ‘we’re ok’ via their satellite phone.”
When no more messages came, Roxvell started calling the press and the Swedish foreign department. A representative of the Swedish embassy in Ethiopia has had the opportunity to visit the journalists and says both are “well, considering the circumstances”.

Those circumstances are complicated: Shortly before their arrest, the journalists were injured in a clash between Ethiopian government forces and armed rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), in which 15 rebels were killed.
“They are suffering from bullets wounds and may not get medical treatment”, says Roxvell. “And we don’t know what happened to their Somali guides, who had taken them under their wing.”
The Swedish embassy in Ethiopia obtained information that the two journalists have been transfered to Addis Abeba. For Roxvell, this is not a good sign: “In Ethiopia, you can be sentenced for up to twenty years of prison for just talking to the ONLF rebels. To them, they’re terrorists.”

The arrest is part of a much larger story. The Somali region of Ethiopia (often called Ogaden, after one of the tribes inhabiting the area) suffers from a bloody conflict – and a media blackout.

“Not even the head of the UN can enter!”

The last international journalists in the region have been sent from Al Jazeera two years ago, but today hardly any reporters venture into the Ogaden. Obtaining an official travel permit is almost impossible, says Huda Yusuf, Executive director working for African Rights Monitor, a non-profit organisation that seeks to increase global awareness of human rights violations in Africa.

Given that the Ethiopian government can accuse the journalists of entering illegally, should the two have tried to cross into Ethiopia at an official border post? “No way it would have worked!” says Yusuf. “Not even the head of the UN would be able to go to the Ogaden.”
“What they did was brave and courageous”, she continues. “The Ethiopian constitution allows for a free press – so if they wrote this in their constitution, then why do they behave in such a different way?”
For many observers, the answer is simple: Ethiopia does not want any journalists in the Ogaden, because it has too much to hide. “The region is like a warzone. They do not only ban any coverage of what’s going on, they also ban the Red Cross and NGOs from doing their work properly,” says Yusuf.

She says there was evidence that women have been gang raped, children used as child soldiers and entire villages have been torched. A recent Human Rights Watch report documents violations based on eyewitness accounts, but did not receive widespread media coverage.

Ethiopia denies those allegations and dismisses similar reports as “fabrications”. When Martin Schibbye and Johann Persson decided to travel to the region, their intention was to find out what was really going on.

Raising awareness of a forgotten conflict

“They wanted to investigate those human rights abuses and raise awareness for a region that is usually forgotten by the world’s media. Both are driven by a deep sense of justice, certainly not by money,” says Roxvell who shares an office with Persson and had initially planned to travel with him.
Martin and Johann have the undeniable advantage of being European and of having an embassy committed to obtain their release. “If they’d be two Africans, they might have killed them right away or they’d keep them in prison indefinitely”, says Huda Yusuf.

But at the same time, the two Swedes do not get the same media attention that journalists working for a big international media outlet would. “CNN or Al Jazeera would immediately start a social media campaign and make the case very public. But Martin and Johann are freelancers, so no media organisation feels responsible,” says Roxvall.
Ironically, the aim of their trip to the Ogaden may still be achieved. Raising public awareness about the plight of civilians in the region becomes easier when journalists get arrested. “I’m glad that this region suddenly gets some attention”, says Yusuf. “But at the same time, I’m very sad about the reasons for this attention.”

Regards; Doha Centre for Media Freedom 2011

 

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