Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye in Kangaroo Court 

The old adage is that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Could it be said equally that arrogance excuses ignorance of the law? Dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi recently proclaimed the guilt of freelance Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye on charges of “terrorism” while visiting Norway. He emphatically declared that the duo had crossed into Ethiopia from Somalia with insurgents of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) as terrorist accomplices and collaborators: “They are, at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organization. They are not journalists. 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.” 

At a “court” hearing last week, Persson denied the charges: “My intention was to do my job as a journalist and describe the conflict. Nothing else. Not guilty.” Schibbye admitted “entering the country without proper documentation. For that I am guilty and I apologize to the government of Ethiopia. But I am not guilty of terrorist activity.” Shimeles Kemal, the “chief prosecutor” was full of hyperbole when he laid out his “legal” case in a press conference. He claimed the two journalists “entered the country with a gang of terrorists. They have even been trained in using weapons. They are accused of abetting and rendering professional assistance to terrorists. Their activities go a bit beyond just journalistic news gathering.” 

Criminalizing, demonizing and dehumanizing journalists, opposition leaders and dissidents as “terrorists”, “insurrectionists”, “treasonous” traitors, etc. is Zenawi’s signature M.O. (method of operation). When Zenawi jailed editors of several newspapers following the 2005 elections, he described them in much the same way: “For us, these are not just journalists. They will not be charged for violating the press laws. They will charged, like the CUD leaders, for treason.” This past June, Zenawi ordered the arrest and detention of two young and dynamic journalists, Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of the weekly Awramba Times and Reeyot Alemu, columnist for the weekly Feteh, on fuzzy accusations of terrorism. Last month, Zenawi’s “chief prosecutor” ordered the arrest and detention of the distinguished Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega “for conspiring with terrorist organizations such as Ginbot 7 and other foreign forces who wanted to wreak havoc in the country through their terrorist activities.” When Zenawi wants to jail journalists, he simply brands them as “terrorists” or smears them with a similar label and carts them off to jail. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists roundly condemned Zenawi’s statement as “compromising” the Swedish journalists’ human right to a “presumption of innocence and for predetermining the outcome of their case”. But much more is compromised, including the rule of law, principles of due process and fair trial, the universal principle that it is the accuser, and not the accused, who bears the burden of proof in a criminal case, the principle that guilt is proven in a court of law with an independent judiciary and not before a full court press or the court of international opinion. Ultimately, Zenawi’s statement compromised justice itself.

When Zenawi tagged these two journalists as “terrorist messenger boys” and “participants in the actions of a terrorist organization”, he had in fact sealed their fate and pronounced the final word in kangaroo justice. There is no way that Persson and Schibbye could possibly get a fair trial or not be convicted following such an outrageous and egregiously depraved statement by Zenawi. 

 Difference Between Journalists and Terrorists 

Zenawi sarcastically mocked the two Swedish journalists by rhetorically asking if what they did is “journalism, I don’t know what terrorism is.” Zenawi is entitled to some basic clarification by means of concrete examples. War crimes (“the wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages, and any devastation not justified by military or civilian necessity [Geneva Convention]” are acts of state terrorism. So are crimes against humanity (“widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, murder, forcible transfer of population, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law, torture, [Rome Statute]”.  The “systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective” by an “extremely powerful political police against an atomized and defenseless population” is plain old-fashioned terrorism that is familiar to the average Ethiopian citizen. 

When journalists are embedded with a regular or an irregular military unit and go into a conflict or war zone, they are engaged in “combat journalism”. When journalists dig for facts in places where there is an official news blackout, they are engaged in investigative journalism. When journalists undertake dangerous assignments and cover stories firsthand from a war zone, they are often called war correspondents. When independent reporters, writers and photojournalists accept specific assignments to cover particular stories, they are engaged in freelance journalism. It is because of freelance journalists that the world has come to know so much about the war crimes and human rights abuses that took place in such places like Kosovo, Angola, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia and many other places. 

Oftentimes insurgent and rebel groups distrust professional journalists affiliated with established news organizations. They are more likely to cooperate with freelance journalists who often take great risks to their own safety to undertake firsthand investigations by entering a country at war or in conflict without a visa. Schibbye has been a foreign correspondent and freelance journalist for several newspapers, including The Times, Amelia and Proletären. He has worked in Algeria, the Philippines, Cuba, Syria and Vietnam, among other countries. Persson has worked with Kontinent, a Swedish photojournalist agency, for several  years and taken many dangerous assignments in various countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Both are professional journalists, and until now have never been suspected of any terrorist activity or involvement of any kind by any other country or international agency.   

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